Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blogging and more at 37,000 feet

Skeptics maintain that air travelers won't pay up to$12.95 per session for the ability to Web surf, check e-mail, text-message or do other high-tech tricks in the sky, but U.S. domestic airlines- led by Virgin America, the airline I am on right now _ are rushing ahead to create wi-fi in the sky.

Virgin America, a stylish start-up that first took off from its home base in San Francisco in August 2007, this week became the first U.S. carrier to equip every aircraft in its fleet with wi-fi. I paid $12.95 for my 5-hour plus flight from San Francisco to New York to access gogoinflight, the system VA uses. Virtually every other U.S. airline - among them Air Tran, Delta, American and United - are also using gogo, an Aircell brand, or soon will be.

It works fine, if slightly more slowly than Web service on the ground, enabled by transmission towers scattered across North America. The system doesn't work over water, so it can't be used for overseas flights.

New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey reported last week that Aircell says its airline customers spend a hefty $100,000 per plane to make their aircraft wi-fi-friendly. That's a lot of money, especially in a deep recession, but carriers are evidently convinced that air travelers want to work and play online to pass the time and get things done. VA executives say about 25 percent of their customers go online en route, and from what I can see from my premium eocnomy seat in what VA calls Cabin Select, that seems about right. Of course, VA has perhaps the most tech-savvy passengers of any domestic carrier. This is a gadget-mad customer base.

Me, I'm happy to be online off the ground. Now, if they'll only keep voice communications, whether via Skype or personal handsets, off the planes, we'll have a cheery and productive time up here.

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