The ups and downs of in-flight Wi-Fi

Major airlines are coming onboard with in-flight Wi-Fi, so you can check email and even make Skype calls from up in the air.

Troubleshooting peaks as more airlines choose to take on in-flight connectivity.

I’m in seat 21D aboard a Singapore Airlines A380 flight. We’re strapped in for take-off and the woman in the next seat is doing something that would have been forbidden a year ago. She’s using her e-reader, flagrantly, and the Singapore cabin crew member just smiles sweetly when she passes by.

Until 2014, the rules regarding the use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) in-flight were clear and simple. Passengers were required to turn off all PEDs until advised by the flight crew, usually after the aircraft had climbed above 10,000 feet. “But why?” some passengers asked. “My Kindle poses exactly the same danger as a paperback!”

Some air travellers grumbled. A few broke the rules. A few years back, Hollywood star Alec Baldwin was shunted back to the terminal and offloaded when he refused to stop playing a game on his phone after his aircraft had been pushed back from the gate at Los Angeles airport.

Late in 2013, following a report by a group of experts known as the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rewrote the rules governing the use of PEDs aboard US carriers. What the committee found was that interference from PEDs was not a threat to the safety of most commercial airliners, which was the reason used to justify the rules that restricted their use in-flight. In response, the FAA determined that airlines can safely expand passenger use of PEDs during all phases of flight.

By virtue of its size, expertise and authority, when the FAA barks the rest of the aviation world sits up and takes notice. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), responsible for aviation safety over Europe, quickly echoed the FAA ruling. In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) recommended that airlines use their own discretion to assess the expanded use of PEDs in-flight, provided such use did not compromise air safety.

Who offers in-flight Wi-Fi?

Passengers on most aircraft most of the time now have a much easier ride with their PEDs. Unless told otherwise by the flight crew, you can assume that mobile phones, tablets and e-readers may be used at all stages while on board an aircraft, the so-called “gate-to-gate facility”. However PEDs capable of transmitting and receiving signals must be switched to airplane mode, so no phone calls, texts or emails. Laptops and notebook computers must be stowed for take-off and landing but may also be used in-flight provided Wi-Fi connectivity is disabled or set to airplane mode. Bluetooth devices may be used in-flight but not during take-off and landing.

What this amounts to is a tacit admission that PEDs present no real threat to airline safety even in transmitting mode, since it’s highly likely that at least a few passengers on every flight will not switch their PED to airplane mode, either through carelessness or wilful negligence. 

Under the old rules, all the flight crew had to do was check that PEDs were turned off below 10,000 feet. Today, it would be impossible for the crew to ensure that all such devices capable of transmitting are switched to airplane mode.

 In-flight connectivity

The ability to access and send emails, monitor social media, browse the web and make phone calls on your own device using Skype or other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications brings productivity into the business of flying. More and more airlines are offering full on-board Wi-Fi connectivity, letting you create your own virtual office in the skies.Among the international airlines that service Australia, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Emirates, JAL, Garuda and United offer Wi-Fi on most of their flights. The price plan for in-flight Wi-Fi can be either volume based or time based, and prices are reasonable. JAL’s Sky Wi-Fi costs US$18.80 for 24 hours usage. On Singapore Airlines, the price plan might be volume-based, for example US$9.99 for 10MB, or time-based, depending on which service provider offers coverage on a particular sector.

Front runner in the provision of in-flight Wi-Fi is Emirates, which offers the service free of charge to all passengers on most of its A380 and select Boeing 777 aircraft. Data limit is 10MB, which should be sufficient to check emails and social media. If not you can sign on for another 500MB, priced at just US$1.

Following an eight-month trial on selected A380 flights in 2012, Qantas shelved plans to offer in-flight Wi-Fi, concluding that the sluggish take-up rate – less than 5 per cent of passengers – didn’t justify the cost of installing the technology.

However, there is one promising note that comes from Telstra. In 2014, the telco successfully trialled a ground-based 4G network capable of delivering broadband to aircraft operating along the Melbourne-Sydney air corridor, one of the world’s busiest. And Qantas is reported to be considering a Wi-Fi retrial on domestic routes in July this year through the NBN.

"More airlines are offering on-board Wi-Fi connectivity, letting you create your own virtual office in the skies."

But it pays to be careful. In a cautionary tale, Jeremy Gutsche, founder of trendhunter.com, was stuck with a US$1,142.47 bill after a Wi-Fi session on a Singapore Airlines flight. Under the startling headline “Airplane Internet Gouging”, Gutsche’s post on his Trend Hunter site states that the bill was for “just 155 page views, mostly to my email” plus one 4MB PowerPoint.

According to a spokesperson for OnAir, which provided the in-flight connectivity for Gutsche’s Singapore Airlines flight, it would take much greater usage to explain that bill. Further, “the process for purchasing an Internet OnAir Wi-Fi session is entirely transparent.”

When they sign up for the service, users either end their session at a pre-paid limit or go to pay-as-you-go mode once they’ve reached their limit. The default condition is for an end-of-session at the prepaid limit. In selecting pay-as-you-go mode, Gutsche effectively opened his wallet.

Nor was he monitoring OnAir’s usage tracker bar, as websites and applications running in the background can continue to download ads and data. Whenever explorers probe a new frontier, there are bound to be a few scalps taken.

Major airlines are coming onboard with in-flight Wi-Fi, so you can check email and even make Skype calls from up in the air. 

This article is from the May 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more: The perks of premium economy


May 2015
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