Micheline Maynard

Wi-Fi is in the air, but not all are cheering

New York: For all the annoyance of being crammed into an aluminium tube at 35,000 feet with a bunch of strangers, air travel has offered one benefit: the ability to tell bosses and colleagues, “I’ll be on a flight, so you won’t be able to reach me.” So much for that excuse.

Wireless Internet service is starting to spread among airlines: Delta and American have installed it on more than a dozen planes each, and several other carriers are planning to test it.

For the airlines, always desperate for new sources of revenue, offering the service — about $10 for three hours and more for longer flights — was an easy call. And many passengers will cheer the development as an end to Web withdrawal.

But this new frill is hardly as benign as a bag of pretzels. It may be a new source of tension between passengers on packed planes. A flight attendants’ union has expressed concern that terrorists could use it to plot attacks.

And there is the inescapable fact that one of the last places on earth to get away from it all can now be turned into a mobile office.

Brent Bigler, a financial planner living in Los Angeles, said he paid the $12.95 fee on a recent American Airlines flight to New York, and spent several hours reading e-mail and searching the Internet. When his plane was delayed, he was able to reach a friend to say he would be late for dinner. Even so, he said he worried about the downside. “This could be the same thing as what happened with cell phones and BlackBerrys,” he said. “Once it’s cheap and ubiquitous, employers might expect employees to participate. I may feel guilty if it were a Monday and I napped or read and didn’t use the Internet to do work.”

Airline executives said they were aware that the new service had the potential to raise issues beyond the bottom line. “We want to be respectful of the fact that an airplane is a public place,” said Ranjan Goswami, director of product development at Delta. “You’re in close intimacy with other passengers and the cabin crew.”

Delta has told its flight attendants to treat overly enthusiastic users of Wi-Fi — who might, say, forget to mute the volume on YouTube videos of skateboarding dogs — like people who imbibe too much. In other words, cut them off if they start bothering others around them. “It’s just like alcohol,” he said. “The flight attendants understand how to interact with that.” — New York Times News Service

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