Last month, Jonathan Hofeller, vice president of Starlink commercial sales at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, declared that “connectivity on airplanes is something we think is ripe for overhaul.”
“The expectation has changed faster that the technology has changed,” Hofeller said during the Satellite 2022 conference in Washington. “We’re designing a service where every single passenger on that plane can stream simultaneously.”
‘The Greatest Wi-Fi in the Galaxy’
The overhaul is apparently underway as SpaceX signed its first agreement to add Starlink satellite internet to an air carrier’s fleet of planes.
The carrier is the Dallas semiprivate charter company JSX, which announced the news on Twitter.
“JSX is proud to be the first air carrier to adopt @SpaceX Starlink internet in flight, free for every Customer onboard,” the company said. “We’d call it the best Wi-Fi in the sky, but it’s actually the greatest Wi-Fi in the galaxy – coming later this year.”
The agreement calls for equipping 100 airplanes with Starlink terminals. Terms were not disclosed.
Ravi Sarathy, a professor of international business at Northeastern University, said that agreement provides SpaceX with “a demonstration effect.”
“If JSX has a good experience with using Starlink internet, other airlines will look more carefully at adding it,” he said.
Starlink Delivers Wi-Fi in the Sky
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines (DAL) – Get Delta Air Lines, Inc. Report Chief Executive Ed Bastain told The Wall Street Journal recently that the company has held talks with Starlink and had conducted exploratory testing of the internet technology.
Bastain did not provide details and Delta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Delta introduced a two-week pilot of free internet on certain flights in 2019.
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American Airlines (AAL) – Get American Airlines Group, Inc. Report said it was offering free Wi-Fi on Viasat-equipped planes from April 13 through May 25. JetBlue (JBLU) – Get JetBlue Airways Corporation Report has been offering free Wi-Fi for several years.
Sarathy said that in-flight WiFi and internet access “is likely more important and useful to business travelers, and on long-haul flights.”
It can be an initial differentiator for an airline, he added, but it can be quickly copied if it is seen as a success.
Sarathy noted that service quality is relevant since slow responses might increase with a larger number of users on a flight, and possible blind spots en route.
‘A Perk for Passengers’
“If passengers are allowed to use their mobile phones in flight, there may be less need for in-flight WiFi offerings from the airline,” he said.
“Some airlines offer in-flight Wi-Fi as a perk for passengers paying higher fares, i.e., in business class, and to higher-tier frequent flyers.”
Sarathy added that if the “price comes down, it would be more appealing to millennials, who are accustomed to always having Wi-Fi internet access through their mobile phones.”
Airlines currently get minimal revenue from in-flight Wi-Fi, he said, as it is more of a differentiator to attract categories such as business passengers.
“If in-flight Wi-Fi becomes widely available, its cost is likely to be bundled into the ticket price,” Sarathy said.
To date, SpaceX has launched about 2,000 Starlink satellites to support its network.
The company has been seeking regulatory clearance from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to operate Starlink on airplanes and shipping vessels and had previously tested the internet network on a handful of Gulfstream jets, as well as military aircraft.
Musk, who is also CEO of electric-vehicle maker Tesla (TSLA) – Get Tesla Inc Report, tweeted last year that Starlink was focusing on getting regulatory certification for Boeing’s (BA) – Get Boeing Company Report 737 and Airbus (EADSY) – Get Airbus SE Report A320s, “as those serve most number of people.”