Southwest starting up Wi-Fi in the air


Oct. 29--Southwest Airlines passengers can finally log on to the Web while flying with the Dallas-based carrier.

On Thursday, Southwest announced that its in-flight Internet service will cost $5 per flight. The service is available on 32 aircraft, and the carrier hopes to have around 60 planes outfitted by year's end.

The introductory price, which will likely last through 2012 or until the carrier outfits most of its planes with the service, applies to any device capable of using Wi-Fi.

Southwest is almost two years behind other carriers, such as Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which began offering customers in-flight Internet service in 2008. Southwest decided to use Row 44's satellite-based service, instead of the land-based Gogo used by other carriers, and has taken longer to test and install the service.

Equipped planes have a big bubble on top near the tail.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said he expects the carrier to generate $5 million to $10 million in revenue from in-flight Internet service in the next year.

"We have very modest expectations for the near term," Kelly said. "I think we're very curious to see where we might take it to just having Wi-Fi access and see what else can we do with it."

During its media day at its Dallas Love Field headquarters, Southwest made several other announcements, including:

Starting Nov. 12, customers will be able to book flights on Mexican carrier Volaris on Southwest's website as part of its new International Connect. Volaris serves three California cities -- Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose -- requiring Southwest passengers to connect to Mexico through one of those cities.

The two carriers announced a partnership in 2008 and are finally implementing it, with flights starting Dec. 5.

Southwest will offer eight daily flights out of Newark, N.J., starting March 27 to Chicago's Midway Airport and St. Louis. To introduce its service, Southwest has launched a sale with $72 one-way fares between those cities. The sale ends Nov. 4 and is good on travel through May 25.

The carrier obtained landing slots at Newark Liberty Airport through a lease deal with Continental Airlines as part of government concerns about concentration at Newark after Continental and United Airlines merged. Southwest can operate up to 18 daily round-trip flights at Newark.

Southwest executives also discussed several long-term initiatives at the carrier, including its pending merger with AirTran Airways.

Assuming it receives government approval for the merger, Southwest's largest airport could become Atlanta over time, said Bob Jordan, Southwest's executive vice president for strategy and planning. "We have the potential to add two dozen destinations out of Atlanta" that AirTran does not currently serve, he said.

Also, Southwest's chief operating officer, Mike Van de Ven, said the airline is seriously considering keeping AirTran's Boeing 717 fleet. Southwest operates only Boeing 737s, but said some of those aircraft are old and will be going off lease between 2013 and 2015. "If we're going to try to get into the smaller market tier level, we need an airplane that has a good trip cost with it," Van de Ven said of the 717 model.

And now that the carrier has agreements from its unions on the operation of the new, larger Boeing 737-800 aircraft, a decision on purchasing should come soon, Kelly said. "It is certainly more likely than not that we're going to" purchase the 800 series aircraft," he said.

The 737-800 would give Southwest the opportunity to fly overseas, which Kelly said could mean Hawaii but not trans-Atlantic flights.

Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631