February 23, 2009 9:00 AM
Time for in-flight Internet access is at hand
I've flown twice in the last two months and on one of them - frankly I don't remember if if was Southwest or Frontier - I hauled out my laptop to work on a Word document.
I noticed down in the corner that my spyware alert had been triggered, which meant I was connected to the Internet, even though I hadn't opened a browser. Curious, I popped open Mozilla and up popped the Rocky's Web site. Not wanting to be responsible for some communications system failure, I closed the site and shut off my wireless receiver. I figured I'd stumbled into some rogue Wi-Fi signal floating through the skies.
Now I'm guessing it was a test of an inflight Internet service many airlines expect to begin offering soon.
Despite the industry's promises over the years, Wi-Fi broadband service is available on a relatively small number of flights. Blame technological hurdles, financial turmoil and a general reluctance by airlines to invest in upgrading their fleets.
The U.S. airline industry, though, now appears serious about moving forward with Wi-Fi in the sky.
A half-dozen carriers - including heavyweights American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines - are testing or implementing Internet service on select flights. Other airlines hope to roll out the technology on a broader basis later this year.
"I think that within the next 18 months in-flight Internet is going to become a lot more prevalent than it is now," said Florida- based airline consultant Stuart Klaskin. "The technology has more or less been perfected to a point where it does really work well, and airlines are starting to show some genuine interest in making it happen."
Much of it is tied to consumer demand. Passengers are used to being able to access the Internet almost anywhere, and a commercial airplane is one of the few remaining places where they don't have that ability. Leisure travelers want a way to pass the time and communicate with friends and family during flights, while business travelers want to get work done without being interrupted by phone calls.
"What this really boils down to is that we really want to give our customers the option to be productive when they're flying," said Chris Mainz, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, which recently began testing Internet technology on several planes.
Consumers also now seem willing to pay for it. A study conducted last year by Forrester Research found that almost half of the leisure travelers it surveyed said they would fork over $10 for Internet access on long flights. The percentage likely is even higher for business travelers.
Would you pay for Internet access while you're flying? Or would you rather get away from the Internet for a couple of hours? Would passengers with Internet phone service be able to yak away during the flight? If Internet access becomes common on flights, will cell phone service be far behind?