WestJet plans tiered model for inflight Wi-Fi

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Canada’s WestJet expects to unveil its inflight connectivity and Wi-Fi service provider by the end of February, ending years of speculation over the carrier’s evolution from seat-back satellite television to connectivity.

The news comes at a time when Air Canada is also closely studying its Wi-Fi options, as connectivity fever is proving catchy in Canada.

WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky outlined the timeframe for the announcement during a recent earnings discussion with investors. The carrier has not yet signed a definitive agreement, said Saretsky, but he expects the pieces to fall into place to reveal WestJet’s connectivity provider by month’s-end.

Suggesting that WestJet will offer a tiered model, WestJet EVP sales, marketing and guest experience Bob Cummings said the carrier aims to discuss aspects of its connectivity business model with respect to “what is paid and what is free”, when its connectivity supplier is revealed. But he cautioned that WestJet does not expect to capture any revenue from connectivity in 2014 due to lead times in obtaining supplemental type certification for equipment installs on its aircraft.

Referencing a 90-day timeframe to gain requisite certifications from the US FAA and Transport Canada, WestJet could debut connectivity by year-end. However, Saretsky noted it took longer than expected to gain the FAA’s approval for WestJet’s seat configurations for its extended legroom offering featured in its new Plus fare bundles.

WestJet has more connectivity options available to it now than in the past. Gogo, for instance, is in the midst of building out a cell tower infrastructure in Canada to support air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity, and it’s plausible that Gogo would be willing to work out a creative package for WestJet outside of its traditional model in the US. A Gogo spokesman said recently, “It’s no secret that we’re in talks with the Canadian carries and a number of carriers worldwide, but keep in mind that we have enough of an operation with our current airline partners to warrant the Canadian network anyways -enough traffic between business aviation and current airline customers [flying transborder routes], notably Alaska Airlines, that we would want to have the network there no matter what.”

Gogo is also offering Ku-band satellite-supported connectivity to customers, though it has run into challenges in obtaining FAA approval for some supplemental type certificate (STC) proposals due to the agency’s heightened scrutiny of bird strike testing of antenna radomes. Panasonic and Global Eagle’s Row 44 unit also offer Ku, and could be contenders for WestJet’s business. Indeed, Row 44 – with its STC to install Ku connectivity on the 737 – could be seen as being well positioned to garner this business.

ViaSat reachWestJet already carries Ku-band-supported live television, via LiveTV, on most of its 737 fleet, though it has opted not to install the seat-back IFE system on its new 737s.  LiveTV uses the high-capacity ViaSat-1 Ka satellite for connectivity. This provides coverage of major Canadian cities near the border, but not fully across the swath of Northern Canada. Air Canada is understood to be studying LiveTV’s Ka solution, among others.

WestJet, meanwhile, plans to showcase the connectivity system to its employees before revealing its plans to the public, Saretsky stated. So news of the service provider could very well break on social media first.

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