WestJet to offer Wi-Fi in 2014: CEO

December is proving to be a banner month for the Calgary-based airline, WestJet.

The company hit marketing gold with a well-timed “Christmas Miracle” stunt that saw staff deliver an array of gifts – from socks and underwear to flat-screen TVs – to 250 surprised passengers enroute from Toronto to Calgary. The video has garnered millions of views around the world. 

Turns out that’s not the only gift the airline has in store for its customers.

Indeed, WestJet is about to become the first airline in Canada to offer inflight wireless service.
The company was playing coy on its big plans Tuesday, though WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky had already spilled the beans to the Calgary Herald.

A deal with an as-yet unnamed service provider could be signed by Christmas, Saretsky said, the airline’s first Wi-Fi equipped planes could be in the air by October of 2014.

Robert Palmer, airline spokesman, told Yahoo Canada Finance to stay tuned for an announcement in the next month or so.

“We've actually said for over a year that as we search for a new inflight entertainment system, that WiFi in some form would be part of that system,” Palmer said in an email.

Wi-Fi service has long been available to passengers travelling on United States carriers. Service providers such as Gogo offer various day-use, monthly or annual connectivity passes to travellers, allowing them to send and receive email and other basic internet functions.

Technological advances will soon allow passengers to stream video, according to Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline analyst with RW Mann and Company based in New York state.

“It has got to the point where we are in a second generation of Wi-Fi equipment,” Mann said.
Mann said WestJet’s Wi-Fi ambitions will give it the a competitive edge, particularly among business travellers who want to make better use of their time during flight.

But he suggested it's also part of a larger business strategy for the airline to rid itself of costly and heavy inflight entertainment equipment.

“You bring your own tablet or phone or laptop and we’ll give you a signal,” he said.

According to the Herald, Gogo obtained the Industry Canada approval it needs to launch its service in Canada, and the company is now building a network of cell towers across the country.

Mann said there are also inflight Internet providers that offer satellite coverage.

Canadian regulations currently do not allow the use of personal electronic devices during flight. The issue is being reviewed, and Saretsky told the Herald he believes Transport Canada will reverse their ban.

Air Canada has been testing inflight Wi-Fi on a limited basis for some time, but has not made a final decision on its use, according to Peter Fitzpatrick, airline spokesman.

“The fact is the technology is changing quite quickly so we have not committed to it, or any system.  More immediately, we have invested in upgrading our In-flight Entertainment system because customers have told us that is more important,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an email.

 “We continue to evaluate the options. It is a significant investment, so we want to be sure to do this right. There is no timeline for a further roll-out.”