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April 23, 2009

In-Flight Wi-Fi Report: Flyers Bemoan Loss of Foxhole

Looks like soon, the subway will be the businessman's only safe nap zone.
Photo: muzzanese on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

With as many as 800 planes in the U.S. morphing into mile-high Wi-Fi hotspots in the next two years, here's a thought that may not have occurred to the airlines: Some fliers are less than thrilled that one of their best excuses for ducking an annoying colleague or a last-minute work assignment may be snatched away from them.

That, at least, was the buzz among some pin-striped business types at an Airfinance Journal conference in Manhattan this week. According to one source, groans were heard when the topic arose. If the boss could fire off a demand while you're trapped in an aluminum tube, you're stuck--can't exactly sneak out to lunch, can you?

It appears that in-flight Wi-Fi providers are aware of this issue. Row 44 president Gregg Fialcowitz recently suggested in an interview that users who would rather read or nap can fall back on that time-honored excuse: "the system is down."   

"We recognize the technology will annoy some, if not many," Fialcowitz conceded.

Still, in-air Wi-Fi may soon be ubiquitous, judging from American's recent pledge to expand Air Cell's Gogo service from 15 to 300 planes in two years; Delta aims to finish wiring a similar number by the end of 2009. Virgin America, while much smaller, says it will be the first U.S. airline to be all Wi-Fi by June. Alaska Airlines and Southwest are going with Air Cell rival Row 44, a satellite-based service that charges $8 versus Gogo's $10 to $13, depending on the length of flight. And both charge less for handhelds ($6 at Row 44, $8 at Gogo) meaning that CrackBerry addicts will be presumed to be online the whole time they're away from the office. In-flight phone calls, however, remain verboten under federal law.

I have to admit I was surprised that anyone would oppose Wi-Fi access in the air. I've tried it myself and thought it was great--but then again, as a freelance writer who is not tied to an office, I don't have the same fear of getting cornered, so to speak. It seemed a fine way to relieve the tedium of a three-hour coach flight.

What do you think? Do you ever use the "Oh, sorry I couldn't get back to you--I was on a plane" dodge for work or personal reasons? And if you have tried in-flight Wi-Fi, we'd love to hear about your experiences.

Further reading:
* American previews Wi-Fi, but Skype gets blocked
* Cell phones on transatlantic flights? Yes if you don't talk
* On the Fly: The airline industry


I'm not worried about the boss or the office trying to contact me at all hours, I can manage that. I'm more concerned about the now greater (almost certain) probability that the clown sitting behind me will be pounding away on the laptop that is resting on the tray table attached to my seat, thus eliminating any chance for some R&R such as a nap or restful music.

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