It is no big deal that I am writing this column on my laptop while flying from San Francisco to New York. People have done that for years. But as I write, I can send instant messages to colleagues at my office and surf the Web for research material.
The Internet has arrived in the skies. And that, of course, is a big deal.
I am a little behind the curve on this one. Airborne Wi-Fi has been around for a couple of years now. But I do most of my flying on JetBlue, which, uncharacteristically, is behind the curve on this one. JetBlue has not gotten beyond limited in-flight testing of onboard Internet.
Other airlines, however, are forging ahead. Delta said it had installed Wi-Fi on about 75 percent of its aircraft by the end of last month. American, AirTran, United, Continental and Alaska airlines all have rolled out the service, as has Virgin America, on whose A320 I am sitting as I type this.
Earlier on this trip, I sat on my Virgin America flight from New York to San Francisco and swapped messages with my colleague Rebecca Pavese, who was flying on Delta from Atlanta to San Jose at the time.
Most of these carriers are using Gogo, which charged me $12.95 for full laptop service on this five-hour flight. There are lower rates for smart phones and shorter flights, and discounted monthly subscriptions at $29.95, though this is a promotional price that is supposed to eventually go to $49.95.
On a full aircraft with many laptops sharing the connection, I found the service adequate for surfing most Web sites and fine for instant messaging. Gogo blocks voice-based services like Skype, so the chatter level will be kept to a minimum - at least for now. The service generally is available only when the aircraft is within 100 miles of the contiguous United States and above 10,000 feet. Below 10,000 feet, all your electronic devices are supposed to be turned off, anyway. You comply with the rules, don’t you?
Some carriers, including Lufthansa and Oman Air, are bringing out so-called long-haul Wi-Fi that is supposed to work even when the aircraft is far out over open ocean. Lufthansa actually offered such a service in conjunction with Boeing from 2004 to 2006. The suspended service is due to return this year with upgraded capabilities, including the ability to send text messages from your mobile phone.
As with most forms of progress, all this is somewhat of a mixed blessing. Being constantly connected allows me, on this Saturday flight, to be available to colleagues who might have urgent questions while they deal with a heavy tax-season workload. It keeps me within reach of two daughters who are traveling abroad and might want some fatherly advice. (I know, dream on.) My wife can tell me about any last-minute changes in our dinner plans. I can keep up with the latest plot twists in the health care overhaul.
But what happened to sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the flight? Now there is one less opportunity to tune out the world for a few hours to watch a movie, read a book, think deep thoughts or sleep a deep sleep.
If all else fails, we can still hit the emergency button. It’s the one labeled “power” on most machines. Our gadgets still require a human to turn them on, and we still have the freedom to turn them off when the spirit moves us.
That’s one freedom I plan to keep as I move about the country.