Alaska Airlines will invest $25 million to upgrade its regional jets with a new WiFi system from Intelsat capable of download speeds in the hundreds of megabits per second, using both traditional geostationary and new low-Earth orbit satellites.
The system is expected to debut starting in 2024 on Alaska Airlines sister airline Horizon Air. The satellite system will replace an existing system that relies on ground antennas for WiFi service in regional aircraft.
Alaska Airlines and Intelsat say the shift to satellites will enable WiFi service on planes in remote areas such as the state of Alaska, in addition to significantly improving internet latency and throughput.
It will allow passengers to stream video and other applications requiring high-speed internet, they say, with the ability to use the service immediately after boarding rather than waiting for the boarding doors to close.
“It takes the experience on a regional jet right now, which is subpar compared to mainline, and brings it up to the mainline level, and then some,” said David Scotland, Alaska Airlines inflight product and experience director, in an interview.
The companies say the new service will be the first commercial airline application of an electronically steered antenna, mounted atop of the Embraer 175 jets used in Alaska’s regional fleet. Alaska is shifting to this all-jet fleet on its regional routes. The final flights of its Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes are this week.
Intelsat is the successor to Gogo in-flight internet, after acquiring Gogo Commercial Aviation in December 2020. The upgraded Alaska WiFi will be priced comparably to the current service, around $8/per flight, Scotland said.
The electronically steered antenna uses technology from Ball Aerospace. The antenna connects to both geostationary (GEO) satellites, which are 22,000 miles from earth; and low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, about 300 miles from Earth. Intelsat’s system uses the OneWeb LEO satellite network for connectivity.
A key factor is the relatively light weight of the antenna, about 90 pounds, and a low profile that doesn’t protrude into the cabin, said Dave Bijur, senior vice president of Intelsat Commercial Aviation, in an interview this week.
Intelsat is testing the antenna and the GEO/LEO internet service on its own plane.
“That’s what we’re going to spend most of 2023 doing — getting it ready to go on that test airplane, so that when we get to Alaska’s airplane, it’s matured, it’s got time in saddle, if you will, and we’re ready for primetime,” Bijur said.
Alaska uses different versions of the Boeing 737 for its mainline service. For now, these mainline Alaska jets will continue to use Intelsat’s 2KU mechanically steered antenna for GEO satellite internet connectivity for passengers.
However, over time, as the combined GEO/LEO system is refined on regional aircraft, it could be considered for retrofitting Alaska’s mainline aircraft with the electronically steered antenna, as well, Scotland said.
Intelsat’s agreement with Alaska isn’t exclusive, meaning that other airlines could adopt the new service, as well, but Alaska is expected to be first to roll it out.