In-Flight Ad Platform Sidesteps Airlines’ Internet Fees

A new platform from Row 44 and JiWire lets brands target in-flight airline passengers with online display ads. While Internet access on planes has been around for over a year, the platform distinguishes itself with a portal called “Skytown Center” that allows passengers to shop and read articles for no charge.

The platform allows airlines to offer a partitioned Web experience, where passengers can access Skytown Center for free — even if the airline is charging a fee to enjoy the rest of the Internet. When passengers log onto a browser aboard flights using the system, they will be taken to the Skytown Center home page, where various content and product categories will be accompanied by branded display ads. The system was developed by Westlake Village, Calif.-based Row 44.

Consumers will be able to click on the ads, go into other categories, and make purchases within the portal, among other things. And advertisers will be able to reach an audience of smart-phone and laptop users that may not be in the mood to pay for Internet access after doling out cash for extra bags or pillows and blankets.

Many of the early brand participants are expected to be from JiWire’s mobile client list, and their ads are scheduled to begin appearing in-flight in November. The San Francisco-based mobile marketing company is pushing the ad opportunity as another touchpoint in which brands can impact the on-the-go mobile audience — especially the business-class niche.

Key to the idea is that travelers who see advertising — online or offline — can now be targeted with product offers from the same brand while they kill time aboard an airplane, according to a JiWire spokesperson. The spokesperson added that the advertisers will be able to orchestrate sponsored channels and branded navigation tools within the Skytown Center portal.

Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines have been testing the satellite-based platform on select flights and are expected to roll it out in an undisclosed number of jets in the near term. No word on whether or not the two airlines plan to charge for in-flight Wi-Fi access for the entire Web.

The joint venture by Row 44 and JiWire is just the latest development for the budding in-flight Internet advertising category. For instance during May, Virgin American became the first airline to offer Wi-Fi on its entire fleet of planes. Southwest plans on having Internet available in all of its planes by early 2010. Delta continues to add jets to its one-year-old in-flight initiative, and American Airlines started offering access on about 100 planes in August.

A recent survey by the industry group Wi-Fi Alliance discovered that 76 percent of the 480 frequent business travelers surveyed would choose an airline based on the availability of in-flight Internet. More than 70 percent of those interviewed would choose an airline with Wi-Fi over one that provided meal service, and 55 percent said they would change their itinerary by one day if it meant getting the in-flight service.

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