Chartering a private jet has long had its privileges, including door-to-door limo service on the ground and satellite phones in the air. But one amenity has long eluded the charter jet traveler: high-speed wireless Internet.
Even as commercial carriers have installed high-speed Internet on their planes, private charter companies have found the technology too expensive and bulky for their smaller aircraft. That meant while everyday passengers on Southwest, Virgin and Alaska Air flights could surf the Web from their seats, wealthy individuals and Fortune 500 executives in chartered Lear jets and Gulfstreams couldn't get a whiff of Wi-Fi.
Now, one L.A. plane charter company is set to break the wireless barrier. Clay Lacy Aviation Inc. in Van Nuys claims it will be the first charter plane company in the country to equip its fleet with high-speed wireless Internet.
Executives with Clay Lacy and Aircell LLC, which build the Internet devices, said the service will be comparable to the high-speed Internet connections that most people have at home or in the office. The move is perhaps overdue given that charter companies cater to the very people who feel they can't be disconnected from the Internet for more than a few minutes.
"It's a business tool," said Clay Lacy, the charter company's chief executive. "This equipment allows a guy to get in the plane and continue working the exact same way he was working in his office, all the way to his destination."
But it's also evidence of the pressure commercial airlines have exerted on private charters as they ramp up the availability of high-speed wireless in their fleets. Delta Air Lines Inc. has outfitted more than 100 of its planes with high-speed wireless Internet supplied by Aircell. American Airlines plans to have Wi-Fi aboard about 150 of its larger aircraft by the end of this year.
"Really for business travelers, this is a must-have," said Michele Merluzeau, a managing partner with G2 Partners, an aerospace and defense consulting firm. "Clay Lacy and all the other operators are feeling a little bit of pressure to equip their birds with what is becoming more common in premium and economy travel."
Charter operators have provided Internet access to clients in the past, but only through satellite service, which was slow and expensive. Until Aircell built a lighter, smaller and cheaper device, installing Internet on private jets typically cost about $300,000 to $400,000, offered dial-up speeds and required passengers who used it to pay up to $12 a minute.
Aircell's new devices, which use a network of land-based towers, will cost about $50,000 to $100,000 to install in each plane, and travelers will pay a flat fee per trip for use. Brian
Kirkdoffer, president of Clay Lacy, said the fee has not yet been determined but could be a couple of hundred dollars. That may sound expensive, but for comparison, a $12-a-minute charge would exceed $200 after only 17 minutes.
Clay Lacy executives said they will start by outfitting a pair of Gulfstream G450s with wireless Internet this month and plan to have most of the rest of their 70 planes equipped by mid-2010; they won't add Internet gear to the smallest planes, and those they're about to retire. The high-speed service will be available on domestic flights, and Aircell executives said an Internet connection can be made available on international flights. That will be a satellite service, but better than what was available previously.
Aviation industry experts contacted by the Business Journal said this was the first time they had heard of a charter company outfitting its fleet with high-speed Internet. They characterized the move as a significant step for charter plane companies.
"If Clay Lacy is going to make the claim that they're installing it on all their aircraft, then it would be something pretty big in the charter aviation industry," said Moshe Hirsch, charter manager at Studio City-based Studio Jet Aircraft Charter, which helps clients book flights with hundreds of charter companies, including Clay Lacy.
Aircell had installed its Internet equipment on more than a dozen private jets before the deal with Clay Lacy. But those jets were owned and managed by companies and wealthy individuals, not charter companies.
While Clay Lacy has a fleet of about 70 planes, it owns only a few of them and arranges for the use of others when their owners aren't flying. Clay Lacy then charters the aircraft to third parties and splits the proceeds with the plane owners.
As a result, Clay Lacy is only paying the upfront cost of outfitting the planes it owns about 10 with wireless Internet. Owners of the other planes in Clay Lacy's charter fleet have agreed to pay to install the wireless equipment, both for their own convenience and to increase charter demand for the aircraft.
Last week, one of the Gulfstream G450s that will be equipped with wireless sat on the hot tarmac behind Clay Lacy's headquarters near the Van Nuys airport. While giving a tour of the plane, Kirkdoffer showed off a pamphlet advertising the plane's amenities, including four DVD players, an iPod port and satellite phones.
"Soon we'll be able to put 'wireless Internet' on there, too," he said.
Kirkdoffer believes Clay Lacy has lost clients to the airlines because they didn't want to abandon e-mail and BlackBerries when they were airborne.
"I have many clients that have just wanted this service for a long time," he said. "I've even had a few tell me the only reason they fly the airlines is because of wireless Internet."
While Clay Lacy might soon have an advantage now over other charter plane companies, that will fade as wireless technology for airplanes becomes more affordable and accessible. Clay Lacy's edge will give way to a race between companies to provide the best service.
"This is definitely something business jet operators will have to do," said Merluzeau of G2. "And as more companies adopt this system, it will not be a differentiator anymore. They'll have to move to the next level, whether it's the speed of the connection or the cost to use it."
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