In-Flight Internet Takes Off. WiFi reaches the Sky

Who, flying with a laptop or smartphone, might have expected FREE in-flight Wi-Fi Internet access just few years ago? Internet access at 35,000 feet is no longer next year’s technology. Passengers aboard many airlines can do much more than simply watching videos, listening to music or playing games or simply sleeping throughout the journey. They can now browse the Internet and keep connected even at a height of more than 35,000 feet.

Several dozen planes over the US have broadband over WiFi backed by satellite or ground cell stations, and hundreds more are coming this year. And some lucky travelers have experienced free Internet access while flying this holiday season, courtesy of airline partnerships with the likes of Google and eBay. But getting passengers to sign on as paying customers may represent a challenge. Here’s how the technology works, which airlines offer Internet service, and what’s coming up.

In-Flight Internet Takes Off WiFi in the Sky

Every new technology or every milestone in technology has faced skepticism and challenges. Laptops, MP3 players, palm tops, video games, Bluetooth, and Wi-fi add to the list of emerging technologies that the airlines are still learning to handle. Many airlines have their own list of banned gadgets and their own set of rules for the same. It is also not known whether there is clear scientific evidence to prohibit similar gadgets or whether the airlines are simply playing it safe. However, airlines now seem to be eager to offer more perks to the passengers and introduction of in-flight WiFi looks like a major step in that direction.

Who are the current in-flight internet service providers?

– Google has offered the most generous gift of free Internet to all Virgin American passengers, from Nov. 10, 2009 until Jan. 15, 2010.

– eBay signed on with Delta Air Lines to provide complimentary Internet service to Wi-Fi users traveling on certain flights during the Thanksgiving travel period, from Nov. 24 to Nov. 30.

– Lexus sponsored a similar free trial period for American Airlines earlier this month.

AirCell has enabled in-flight Wi-Fi access for prices ranging from $5.95 to $12.95 per flight or day. Airlines hope passengers who get a free taste will become frequent paying customers of the service.

Which Airlines are currently providing in-flight internet?

– Major carriers such as Delta have hundreds of Wi-Fi enabled aircraft.

– A few smaller airlines such as Virgin American and AirTran Airways already have AirCell’s Wi-Fi service on every flight.

– AirTran has launched its own holiday special with a buy one, get one free Internet trial until the end of this year (2009), and also offers a free trial session for every passenger.

What does Internet taking to the skies imply?
For those looking forward to uninterrupted Internet connectivity even on board a flight, in flight Internet service is something to look forward to. Business travelers in particular would want in-flight access. The planes may provide Internet connectivity to individual laptops or may provide built in seatback in-flight. The flights would also provide power sockets for charging laptops.

There is also skepticism over the safety of Internet in flight. It is argued that the possibility of terrorists planning attacks while on flight could not be ruled out. It could also increase the chances of hacking the plane’s onboard computer networks.

Safety, hacking and piracy don’t seem to be the only concerns. How about annoying and disturbing co-passengers making voice calls? Mobile phones are banned by most airlines as radiowaves from handsets could interfere with pilots’ communication devices. There could also be concerns regarding laws applicable for piracy and hacking in flight.

With in-flight Internet taking off, there seems to be a need to develop stringent guidelines for Internet use in flights. While various concerns may seem overwhelming, new guidelines may develop in the course of time as in-flight Internet is a new experience for both airlines and passengers as well.

Free Internet access sounds great for passengers, as long as Google-like sponsors keep paying the bill. But airlines and companies such as AirCell still hope to earn revenue from airline customers who pay for their Wi-Fi privileges – a tough sell for most passengers, according to airline insiders interviewed by Portfolio.com. Given the option, will you try a PAID in-flight internet service? Or will you try it only if it was FREE? 😉

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