"Potato people" help airlines with challenge of getting Wi-Fi off the ground

(CBS News) The government is making it easier to use Wi-Fi aboard commercial flights, which could mean more than $1.5 billion in revenue for airlines. But, as CBS News learned, the airlines still have to get through a few hurdles.

Until recently, getting on-board meant getting booted off-line, but there are new signs of the times for airlines. More than half of planes flown by U.S. carriers are now equipped with Wi-Fi, usually carrying a fee to stay connected in the air.

But getting the Internet into the air means a lot of work. To get an entire 747 plane connected with an online system takes approximately 15 days, Kosh Harrinauth, operations manager of United, told CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. Harrinauth added they intend to get that time down to 10 days.

Greenberg asked, "To put a plane on the ground for 15 days to do this, is taking it out of revenue service, that is a significant investment on the part of United, to put this system in?"

Harrinauth said, "Absolutely, it is. Anytime an airplane sits on the ground, it's not making us any revenue."

It can cost upward of $200,000 to install a Wi-Fi system on a single plane, but United, and other airlines, hope to recoup that with new high-speed satellite-based service. Unlike previous systems, these connect passengers via satellites in Earth's orbit, instead of stations on the ground -- and that means service is now available on overseas flights.

Harrinauth gets it all installed, from the power supply in the belly of the plane to the central server hidden above the main cabin. The wire runs the length of the aircraft to the oval-shaped dome on the roof, where the whole system talks to satellites high above.

"When you're working over your Wi-Fi on the ground, and you get one of those inevitable dead spots, it's not a big problem. Why? You can stand up, walk around till you find a better signal. But you can't do that at 35,000 feet, and that's been the challenge for the engineers to make sure that you get Wi-Fi when you want it, and where you want it, throughout the entire aircraft," Greenberg said.

Scientists at Boeing think they've found the answer. They've developed a cutting-edge testing regimen to make sure the Wi-Fi on every wide-body plane they put into service works consistently throughout the cabins.

Kenneth Kirchoff, a Boeing engineer, explained, "The airplane is what we call a very reverberant environment, it means that the signal bounces around quite a bit because it's an aluminum airplane, so we want to make sure that it's bouncing correctly, so we get all the proper signal that we need."

But there's one thing missing from testing: bodies in the seats -- bodies that can interfere with Wi-Fi signals. Boeing couldn't get 200 people to sit still while they developed the testing, so they went with an unusual alternative: potatoes.

Kirchoff said, "Potatoes are much cheaper and they behave a lot better than humans for weeks at a time in one place. ... So we built potato people and we put them on the seats, in 200 seats or so, and measured the performance of Wi-Fi."

Boeing engineer Dennis Lewis said, "The way potatoes and people interact with electromagnetic energy is very similar."

Boeing engineers insist they don't view airline passengers the same as sacks of spuds, but they say to make better Wi-Fi, you've got to trash a few taters.

At this point, United has equipped 20 of its planes, and it hopes to have 300 by the end of the year. The real issue is not the "gee whiz" of the technology. It's what is it going to cost you. Greenberg explained on "CBS This Morning," that United is planning to feature tier pricing. Proposed prices will start at $3.99 to $22.99, based on the duration of the flight, per flight, and based on the speed of the service. Greenberg said, "When you consider a New York to Tokyo flight or a London to Los Angeles flight, that's a pretty good deal."

For Greenberg's full "CBS This Morning" report, watch the video in the player above.

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