Airlines adopt WiFi. This is a good thing

Major carriers test plans to offer Internet access during flight.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published December 10, 2007 5:45PM (EST)

Last week Jet Blue airlines announced that it will test an in-flight e-mail and instant messaging service on a Tuesday morning trip from New York to San Francisco. The program will signals a coming storm. Soon, most airlines will have the Internet.

I understand you may consider this development an indication that the apocalypse is nigh, but allow me to put forward an eloquent counter-argument: Yippee!

Four major airlines have announced efforts to roll out in-flight net access over the next few months. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and Virgin America will likely offer their services -- which will allow full access to the Web -- for a fee, perhaps about $10 a flight, according to the New York Times.

Jet Blue's plan is different. Passengers won't pay for a dime for it, but the service, which Jet Blue is offering in conjunction with Yahoo and Research In Motion, will let you use only Yahoo's e-mail and IM on your laptop, or e-mail and IM on your Blackberry, if your Blackberry's got WiFi. (Presumably any WiFi device that can navigate through the logon screen -- for instance an iPhone -- will also work.) Jet Blue says customers will not be able to get on to the wider Web, at least not yet.

The prospect of communication on planes strikes at something primal in many of us. You're in a confined space. You're high up in the air. People are wary of each other. And, especially around these times, nobody's in a good mood.

Even on the ground, the Internet can annoy people. So what'll happen in the air? What if your seat-mate loads up some terrifically annoying YouTube videos and treats the whole plane to his guffaws? What if, worse, he uses a voice-over-IP phone system to reminisce with his frat brothers on the ground?

There's also something sacred about airplanes, which are the last bastion of blissful disconnection from the rest of the world. People with chaotic lives relish plane trips for the peace they afford; despite all the hassle, at least on a plane nobody can pester you about the Johnson account or blame you for not returning an e-mail. Thirty thousand feet up is the only place to get away from it all.

But if you're annoyed at other people's in-flight Internetting, you're too sensitive. Though it is theoretically possible to load up voice-communication software on these systems, bandwidth limitations will likely preclude it.

Indeed, it's hard to see how the these plans will cause any more irritation than other gadgets we're allowed to use now. You might argue that getting the Web on planes may lead us down the slippery slope toward cell phoning on planes -- which, admittedly, could really be nightmarish -- but that slope's already here, pal. There's nothing to do about it now.

And OK, it's fun, sometimes, to be out of touch with the world, to use your altitude as an excuse for ignoring people. But if you're so hard up for peace that you look forward to an airline flight for time alone you might consider professional help. Take a vacation! Go to a spa!

There has long been no good reason for planes to be cut off from everything else, especially in these networked times, when nearly every application requires some bit of net access.

If your job's online, a five-hour cross-country flight is a long time to be away. The plane represents good, billable time: You can work on the Johnson account here so that when you land in a new city, you can take time to visit a museum.

Plus you'll have something to do, now, when your plane's stuck on the runway for nine hours.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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