Southwest announced it will begin testing onboard Wi-Fi in early March aboard four planes equipped to deliver Internet service to passengers with laptops, iPhones, and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices. The testing period will last a few months, and passengers can participate in the test program free of charge. If and when the service officially goes live, it will be offered on a pay-to-use basis, though pricing details are not yet available.
Southwest is also partnering with Yahoo! to create a unique in-flight homepage that offers a flight tracker, local news, and photos and facts about the places passengers are flying over. The homepage will also include information on the flight's destination as well as Yahoo! Games.
Two interesting points leap out of this announcement: First, Southwest is intensifying its pursuit of business travelers, which began in earnest with the carrier's Business Select fares. Combining in-flight connectivity with reasonable fares will surely appeal to businesses, especially those forced to reduce their travel budgets, and immediately makes Southwest an obvious choice for domestic business travel. Flying out of the Big Apple won't hurt either.
But it's also fair to assume Southwest took a look at the competition, saw Virgin America and JetBlue testing in-flight Wi-Fi, and decided to act. For years, Southwest has enjoyed the luxury of lucrative fuel hedges and full planes, and its relatively low fares made up for what many felt was a lackluster flying experience. That position of strength, however, has evaporated in recent months, and Southwest is no doubt looking for ways to remain competitive with its flashier rivals without sacrificing everything that's made the carrier successful.