United to install fleetwide inflight wi-fi (finally!)

To me, the introduction of in-flight wi-fi is the best thing to happen to air travel since the introduction of the jet engine. I love it. It makes me more productive. It makes the flight go by much faster. I now choose my flight based on whether or not it has wi-fi. And relatively speaking, it does not cost that much at $6 to $15 per flight.

While SF-based Virgin America has had inflight wi-fi since it first took off in 2007 and Delta Air Lines and AirTran completed fleetwide installations last year, United, the largest carrier at SFO, has only offered it on flights to or from New York.

That’s about to change.

Today United has officially announced that it has selected Panasonic Avionics Corporation to provide Wi-Fi connectivity on more than 300 United Airlines and Continental Airlines mainline aircraft beginning in mid-2012.

And the wait might have been worth it…. That’s because the Panasonic Ku-band system that UAL has chosen will work on flights WORLDWIDE! Across oceans! That’s because the Panasonic system utilizes a satellite based network to provide connectivity. The biggest drawback to the Gogo system used by Virgin, Delta and AirTran is that it’s dependent on a ground based system of antenna, so it only works when flying over the US—once you fly overseas, the service quits. (Gogo does have plans to eventually adopt a satellite-based system; Row 44, which supplies wi-fi to Southwest Airlines, also uses a satellite-based system).

Jim Compton, United’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer said, “As a global carrier, we selected satellite-based Ku-band technology to enable customers to stay connected on long-haul overseas flights, something no other U.S.-based international carrier currently offers.”

United expects to install the Panasonic system on Airbus 319 and 320 and Boeing 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787 aircraft. Customers will be able to use their wireless devices such as laptops, smart phones and tablets onboard those aircraft to connect with internet service using the in-flight hotspot.

United’s entire mainline fleet will be equipped with Wi-Fi by 2015. Details regarding the installation schedule and pricing are not yet available.

This is super exciting news for United devotees who have felt left behind when nearly every other carrier was offering inflight wi-fi.

How do you feel about this announcement? Will it impact your decision to fly United instead of another carrier? What’s the most you’d pay to be connected to the internet for a flight from SFO to Tokyo…or Frankfurt? Please leave your comments!