An airplane is perhaps the business traveler's last haven from our hyper-connected world of BlackBerrys, cellphones, hand-held computers and other electronic tethers to the office.
But disconnecting from the grid simply by boarding an airplane is becoming a thing of the past. Looking to enhance revenue and add features sought by their most profitable customers, airlines are beginning to install in-flight Wi-Fi Internet access.
Don't blame them -- we asked for it.
"Being on an airplane is the only time a traveler has for, frankly, ignoring the office," said Henry Harteveldt, vice president and travel industry analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. Yet Forrester Research found that 38% of business travelers who fly frequently would like to have Internet access on long flights. And 4 in 10 leisure travelers are packing their laptops along with the sunblock so they can stay in touch with the office.
Travelers seem willing to trade free time for work time in the air if there is a payoff -- even if it means shelling out as much as $30 for the privilege. Bill Daugherty of Manhattan Beach is one of them. The retired stockbroker is an active commodities trader, and most of the market data he uses come in overnight. When he travels on vacation two or three times a year, his arrivals in a foreign country are often marked by minor anxiety attacks as he tries to access his data.
"The last thing I want to do when I land in a country is try to figure out a phone or Internet connection," he said.
Thus when he took a Scandinavian Airlines flight with Internet access last spring from Newark, N.J., to Copenhagen, it made perfect sense for him to get online despite the expense. "I was willing to pay for the convenience, the ability to get off the plane and relax and go and do," he said.
The airlines are hoping to woo more passengers like Daugherty. Nine foreign-owned airlines offer Internet access provided by Connexion by Boeing, a division of aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. and the only provider to date of Internet access in the air.
There are no American-flagged carriers using it yet. Lufthansa, Scandinavian, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, China Airlines, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and El Al Israel Airlines have deployed the satellite-based system on select routes. Austrian Airlines' service is in the works and would be the 10th.
Lufthansa, which has dubbed its service FlyNet, is one of three airlines to offer it on flights to and from Los Angeles (ANA and Korean Air are the other two) and has installed it on more planes than any other airline.
"Currently we have rolled it out on 49 aircraft," said Bernhardt Seiter, director of Lufthansa FlyNet. By next winter, he says it will be installed on Lufthansa's entire long-haul fleet of 85 planes.
In December, I flew a Lufthansa 747 from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, Germany, to try out Internet access at 35,000 feet. My laptop is 4 years old and runs a bit slow, even on a good day. Nonetheless, the performance of Connexion by Boeing on the 10 1/2 -hour flight was perfectly satisfactory.
After a simple registration process, I was soon connected wirelessly to the Internet -- the procedure took about 20 minutes. I paid $15 with a credit card for access for the entire flight (the regular price is $30, but there were half-off coupons onboard). Revenue is split between Connexion by Boeing and the airline.
Thirty minutes of access costs $10, and passengers who don't want or need full Internet access can connect to the system free of charge and get access to news and other limited content via the FlyNet network.
Connexion by Boeing also has established roaming agreements with telecommunications and wireless service providers around the globe, so you may be able to pay for access that way.
If you're accustomed to broadband, you're going to be a bit disappointed by the connection speed in the air. Even though my computer is admittedly dated and all sorts of things can affect Internet speed, I found it slow but serviceable.
For example, it took one minute and 45 seconds to download eight e-mails into Outlook. Most Web pages took about 30 seconds to fully load. I was able to post updates to my travel blog (\o7latimes.com/dailytraveler\f7) and in about 2 1/2 minutes uploaded a picture taken of me by a flight attendant. It was a bit faster to e-mail the same picture via AOL -- about 40 seconds.
Perhaps the most significant benefit for me was the diversion. Sitting on a plane for 10 or 11 hours can be terribly dull, no matter how fine the trashy novel procured at the airport newsstand. It was $15 well spent and I'd gladly pay $30 for it on another long flight.