Wi-Fi in the Sky

A number of airlines have rolled out wireless-fidelity services on select flights.
Esther SheinAugust 10, 2005

Modern air travel is a wonderful thing, especially if you like pretzels, endless reruns of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and thimble-sized bottles of Scotch. Of course, many executives eschew such in-flight fineries, preferring instead to work. But with cell phones banned, Internet access all but impossible, and airline-provided phones priced at $3.99 per minute, most business travelers have to muddle through with printouts of old E-mails even as they ponder the parenting skills of the couple with the screaming child across the aisle.

Thankfully, the breakdown in communications may be coming to an end. In May 2004, German carrier Lufthansa signed a deal with a Boeing subsidiary called Connexion to retrofit some of its fleet with wireless-fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology. Since that announcement, a number of global airlines, including Nippon Airways, El Al, and Singapore Airlines, have rolled out Wi-Fi services on select flights. All told, the Connexion Internet offering is currently available on 60 planes traveling to 140 international destinations. Further, management at Tenzing recently indicated the software maker plans to roll out a passenger communications service on Airbus aircraft.

U.S.-based airlines have been slower to embrace in-flight Internet access. That dawdling has more to do with financial stress and regulatory restrictions than lack of vision. The post-9/11 travel slump followed by rising fuel costs have left domestic carriers with precious little free cash. Moreover, authorities in the Department of Homeland Security have reportedly expressed concerns about giving passengers in-flight access to the Internet.

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Nonetheless, in June, United Airlines announced it plans to outfit some of its Boeing 757-200s with high-speed Internet connections. The onboard Web service, which was given the thumbs up by the Federal Aviation Administration last December, is expected to start in late 2006.

The Cone of Silence

It’s about time. The Web may be worldwide, but you’d never know it when you fly from Boise to Biloxi. This lack of in-flight Internet access is truly remarkable, considering that few employees can afford to be offline for more than four minutes, let alone four hours. And it’s not as if frequent flyers don’t have the gear to access the Web from remote locales. According to research firm Forrester, 40 percent of business travelers own a laptop.

While pricing on the United service has not yet been set, prices for Connexion are hardly cheap — at least by consumer standards. For long-haul flights (more than six hours), passengers can choose to pay a flat fee of $29.95, or $9.95 per hour. On shorter jumps, the flat rate is $14.95. But users say it’s worth it. Brad Smith, a lead product manager at a technology company in Seattle, recently used the in-flight service on two SAS flights between Seattle and Copenhagen and says he was able to get onto his company’s intranet, check E-mail, and have discussions with colleagues via instant messaging — all while cruising at 30,000 feet. “I was able to work pretty much a standard business day during the nine-hour flight,” he notes. “It was a relief to be able to walk off a plane and not have to worry about having 50 E-mails to answer.”

Currently, no major commuter-rail line in the United States offers onboard Wi-Fi, although several mobile-phone carriers do market monthly Internet access plans in tandem with makers of laptop PC cards. But those services can be costly, and coverage remains spotty in some locations. Officials at Amtrak say they have no immediate plans to roll out Wi-Fi service on the national railroad. Spokeswoman Marcie Golgoski cites “issues with technology and the costs of such upgrades.” Henry Harteveldt, vice president of travel research at Forrester, labels such thinking “shortsighted,” but concedes that installing relay nodes along hundreds of miles of rail lines would require considerable capital outlays. For now, the best way for a business traveler to stay on track may be to fly.

Esther Shein is a regular contributor to CFO.

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