Susan Michelle's Compass
Flying And Surfing The Internet-Friendly Skies
By Susan Michelle
May 16, 2009 - 6:18:57 PM

CALIFORNIA—I’ve always loved flying for one main reason: the respite.  For however long my flight lasts, I’m unplugged from the world, unreachable by anyone, in a blissful bubble of solitude.  But my haven of tranquility is quickly disappearing, because 2009 is the year airlines are finally plugging in, offering wireless internet 30,000 feet up, whether you like it or not.

Jet Blue started testing in-flight wireless web access in December 2007, but it’s taken until now for the service to finally go industry-wide.  On May 12, AirTran Airlines announced it would offer wireless, broadband internet service on all its flights by the end of this summer.  They’re claiming to be the first major domestic airline to do so, even though Virgin America and Delta/Northwest previously announced they’d have the same “GoGo”/Aircell service on their entire fleets this year, as well.

What’s the big deal?  With wireless service seemingly everywhere nowadays, can’t airlines just stick a router in Row 12, pay AT&T $20 a month, and call it a day?  Not quite.  For one airplane to receive Aircell’s (one of two major domestic in-flight service providers) air-to-ground service, three small antennae need to be installed, at a cost of $100,000 per aircraft.  With 136 jets, that’s a cost of $13,600,000 for AirTran’s entire fleet—far from chump change for this cash-strapped industry.  

Still, most U.S. airlines are dipping their toes into the wireless world this year, often starting the service on longer flights filled with more internet-dependent urban passengers: NY-LA, NY-Miami, NY-San Fran, etc.  American has 15 such planes right now, with plans to expand to about half its aircraft over the next two years.  United, JetBlue, Air Canada, Continental, Alaska, and Southwest are all still in the testing phase on a handful of aircraft, with the latter two airlines using Aircell’s satellite-based competitor, Row 44.  If all goes according to plan, we should have over 800 broadband-enabled planes in the U.S. by the end of this year—a 3200 percent increase from just 25 last year.  

Sounds good, but how good’s the actual service?  Well, it’s not free.  Aircell’s service costs $12.95 for laptop access on flights of three hours or more, $9.95 for shorter flights, and $7.95 to connect via pda.  Service is supposedly fast enough to stream video, but video and voice-chatting (via Skype, etc.) are prohibited.  Also prohibited?  Online porn.  And if you can’t filter that yourself, American and Delta’s “lightly filtered” service will do it for you.

So, watch YouTube, IM and e-mail all you want, but illicit activities and loud conference calls will have to wait until landing.  At least there’s some element of my peaceful bubble still being preserved in the skies.  I guess if I want to remain in a completely unplugged airborne world, I can always limit my flying to overseas flights, since wireless service has yet to be made available when crossing the ponds.  I better hurry up, though, Aircell hopes to begin offering trans-Atlantic in-flight internet as soon as 2010.  Oh, joy.

About the Author: A former Hollywood producer and now 2nd-generation travel professional, Susan Michelle travels the planet as the “face” of the fashion-forward Compass travel lifestyle brand.


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