Wi-Fi in the Sky: Are We There Yet?
If you’re one of the millions of business travelers who fly the friendly skies, be prepared to use your laptop for a lot more than just playing Windows Solitaire to pass the time.
Many domestic airlines -- including American, Delta, US Airways, Virgin America, JetBlue Airways, and Air Canada -- have begun to offer Wi-Fi on select flights, allowing laptop- or smartphone-toting passengers to wirelessly access the Internet while in their seat.
Now you can surf the Web, read e-mail, instant message colleagues, stream media, and downloads files -- all that you can do in the office -- at 30,000 feet.
There have been failed attempts to introduce high-speed Internet access on commercial airlines in the past, such as Connexion by Boeing’s satellite-based technology on Scandinavian Airlines, Lufthansa, China Airlines, Korean Ai,r and Singapore Airlines. But it appears this new round of Wi-Fi service is here to stay.
American Airlines, for example, was the first U.S. airline to implement AirCell’s Gogo high-speed broadband connectivity for $12.95 per flight. The service is currently available on American’s Boeing 767-200 aircraft that primarily flies transcontinental routes between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami. Each Gogo session includes full Internet, virtual private network (VPN), and e-mail access.
“We understand that broadband connectivity is important to our business customers and others who want to use their PDAs and laptops for real-time, in-flight broadband communications,” said Dan Garton, American’s executive vice president of marketing, in a company statement. “This is part of our continuing effort to enhance the travel experience for our customers and meet their evolving needs.”
Pros of in-flight Wi-Fi
“Wi-Fi a mile-high is long overdue,” believes Steve Hilton, vice president of enterprise and small and mid-sized business research at the Yankee Group, a Boston, Mass.-based market research firm. “I can't think of anything more appealing than actually having Internet connectivity while flying rather than sipping a $5 glass of over-oaky domestic Chardonnay.”
Hilton says many traveling businesspersons get their best work done on airplanes because of the lack of distractions, so “having an Internet service handy would be valuable.”
This is also true for those who prefer “cloud computing,” by working on files remotely, say, in an online-only program like Google Docs & Spreadsheets.
Andy Walker, executive producer of Butterscotch.com, a technology-focused video and downloads website, agrees with Hilton on how online access can increase productivity. “Wi-Fi in the sky is great because a flight is often the only real downtime time a busy person gets. Therefore it’s a great opportunity to catch up on e-mail or any other work that requires an Internet connection.”
“I have always wanted Wi-Fi en route, so I am very excited about this trend,” adds Walker.
Cons of surfing while you fly
Similar to what the BlackBerry has done to promote an on-demand 24/7 work culture, the downsides to Internet access on airplanes include that your boss can e-mail you while you’re relaxing between transcontinental meetings, conferences, or trade shows.
“So you can’t quite escape work, or the world,” concedes Walker. “There is also something to be said for creating a few hours of, shall I say, dis-connectivity, for your mental health,” he adds. “I always let myself get mesmerized by the bubbles in my soda water on a flight and ponder the universe -- the lure of Wi-Fi is going to make that option harder to do given the temptation of being connected again,” says Walker.
Security can also be an issue, says Hilton. “That 900 kilometer an hour metal tube in the sky is filled with potential hackers with nothing to do except poke around your files.” “A good firewall and VPN would be a must for me if I'm doing company work on an airplane,” Hilton adds.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there have been concerns that online connectivity in the skies is that it could facilitate communication between terrorists who might be planning or coordinating an attack. But that doesn't seem to have thwarted the roll out of Wi-Fi in the sky.
But some privacy concerns remain. What if the passenger besides you wanted to use a webcam to chat with his/her spouse via Skype? Think about it: Do you want to hear (and see) their conversation?