Scott Friedman, NBCDFW.com
Airlines race to install in-flight Wi-Fi, even though most travelers still don't use it.
There's a new battle in the air in the never-ending competition to attract business travelers.
Airlines are racing to install more in-flight, wireless Internet systems even though many travelers may not be ready to pay for it.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is aiming to have all of the company's 540 planes Wi-Fi ready by the end of next year. Satellite communication domes are being installed on about two Southwest jets every week.
At Fort Worth-based American Airlines, 737s are being outfitted with Wi-Fi systems, along with some MD-80s and 767s.
For business travelers such as Brian Mahalik, it means the office now goes along with him in the sky. On a recent Southwest flight to San Antonio, he sat in seat 2C sending e-mails to customers from his iPad as the plane climbed to 31,000 feet above North Texas.
"It's great," he said. "It means, when I get off the plane, I'm ready to get going. I'm not thinking about all the things I have to do."
Prices for in-flight Wi-Fi typically range from about $5 to $15, on the airline and the length of flight. And because of that cost, some travelers have been slow to jump on board.
A recent study by Arizona-based research firm In-Stat found that only about one in 50 passengers use in-flight Wi-Fi. But that hasn't stopped airlines from installing it, because the people who use it most are their best customers -- business travelers who pay the most to fly.
Southwest Airlines believes its investment in Wi-Fi will keep those business travelers coming back again and again.
"It's a significant investment, but it's one that pays off in brand loyalty," spokesman Brad Hawkins said. "People are going to go with a carrier they are comfortable with and, in this case, where they can be productive."
American Airlines acknowledges that business travelers are its biggest on-board Wi-Fi customers, but also says there's spillover to leisure travelers as more of the working world gives it a try.
"Business customers like to stay productive and connected, and our leisure customers like to stay entertained, so some of the most popular sites include Facebook and YouTube and iTunes," said Rob Friedman, the company's vice president of marketing.