TCS Daily


Fly High with Wi-Fi?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - March 19, 2003 12:00 AM

As I write this, I'm somewhere over New Mexico, at an altitude of about 37,000 feet. What's frustrating is that I won't be able to send it in until I land.

I've written before about the likelihood that wireless Internet access will spread to all sorts of businesses, but one business that ought to be embracing it full-bore is the airline industry. After all, airline passengers are the ultimate captive audience, and the proportion of laptops among air travelers is awfully high. Furthermore, the large numbers of fat novels and spinning DVDs indicates to me that people are anxious for entertainment.

Yet airlines aren't on the cutting edge of communications technology, they're behind the curve. Lame in-flight telephone technology has been providing lousy connections, at high prices, for years (with the percentage of customers who use the phones plummeting). I've been on flights where the phone claimed to have a data port. In theory, I could hook up to it and check my email, but in practice it doesn't work very well, and it's far too slow to be useful. The one that's in front of me now doesn't even bother to pretend.

But I'd pay real money for in-flight Internet access: at least the price of one of those fat paperback novels (say ten dollars) and maybe more. And I suspect that the road-warrior business types that I see desperately plugging their machines into the data ports on pay phones at airports would pay more. So what gives? After all, the airlines are desperate for business - so desperate that Continental actually fed me on this flight. (Though whether the "meatloaf sandwich" they offered will encourage repeat business, as opposed to repeating bouts of heartburn, is another question.)

There are, undoubtedly, technical issues with using off-the-shelf 802.11b onboard an aircraft, though I'm not sure just how serious those might turn out to be. I guess it's possible, at least, that such signals might interfere with the plane's avionics (and I think that there's a very real issue regarding ultrawideband and GPS, if that becomes a standard down the line). It's certainly possible that just figuring out if that's the case might be expensive enough that it's not worth the trouble. But how hard would it be to put in an Ethernet port? After all, I'm strapped into a seat: once I'm on the plane, I'm not really going anywhere.

The Ethernet port would have to connect to something, of course, but satellite - or even cellular-based - Internet access wouldn't seem that difficult to accomplish. And the result would be a competitive edge for the airline that offered it, as well as additional profit on each flight.

If twenty people on an airliner used in-flight Internet access, which is hardly beyond the bounds of possibility, and if they paid, say fifteen dollars each, the revenue would be as much as an additional passenger. If the availability of the service brought in a couple of additional passengers, the benefits would be even greater.

Landing and checking google - since, you know, I couldn't do it on the plane - I found a few stories like this one suggesting that some people at Lufthansa and British Airways are experimenting with airborne wi-fi, but no signs of introduction by U.S. carriers.

So why aren't U.S. airlines jumping on this? Beats me. Perhaps the technical difficulties are greater than I realize. Or perhaps it's just another example of the same lack of concern for customers, and lack of imagination, that seems to plague the airlines in every other aspect of their business. That would explain it, I guess. It certainly explains the meatloaf sandwich.
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