Airplane Technology Takes Flight
Greetings from 39,000 feet!
I'm writing to you on my laptop on a flight across Canada, courtesy of
something I've never encountered before: full-blown, three-prong,
U.S.-style power outlets on every seat back.
Not some wacky jack that requires a $70 adapter -- we're talking
regular three-prong outlets. Not in first class; in coach. Free, by
Why is it, I wonder, that Air Canada is the pioneer here? Isn't it a
sort of obvious idea -- way more obvious than putting TV screens in
everyone's seat back? I mean, if you have power, you can supply your
own entertainment: a laptop, game, portable DVD player, whatever.
Each seat back on this plane also has a touch-screen entertainment
unit with a choice of TV, radio, movies, games, and so on. Now, I've
seen TV screens on planes before (they have them on JetBlue, on
international flights and in first class) - but not like this. On this
plane, there's no set schedule for movies beginning; every single seat
has its own little TiVo. You can start, stop, pause, rewind or
fast-forward any movie at any time, completely independently of the
other passengers' showings.
It makes a huge difference. (Ever try to watch a movie on a plane
while you're traveling with young children? I rest my case.)
Oh, and Air Canada doesn't charge for any of this, either. (On the
other hand, I don't much care for the way this airline throws away 200
pairs of complimentary headphones after each flight.)
Dear U.S. Carriers: If you're really looking for a competitive
advantage, find out who's supplying Air Canada with these goodies.
You know what's weird, though? No wireless networking. We all thought
that was coming, right? We'd hear about how Lufthansa flights already
have on-board Wi-Fi high-speed wireless, and that it was only a matter
of time before it came to North American carriers.
But even as entertainment screens are developing nicely, wireless
Internet is taking a big step backward-maybe even off a cliff. Boeing
is shutting down its Connexion Wi-Fi service, which is what Lufthansa
and other airline experiments were using. Its Web site says, "The
company has decided to exit the high-speed broadband communications
connectivity market." The service is free until the end of 2006, but
at that point, it's being turned off altogether.
And why is Boeing pulling the plug? Because "the global market for the
service has not developed satisfactorily." Translation: It was losing
money hand over fist.
Evidently not enough airlines outfitted their planes with the
transmitters (at $500,000 apiece).
Surely some other company could step in and rescue the on-board Wi-Fi
industry? But no. "There are currently no plans to transition the
service to another provider."
That's a bummer. (I may be typing this at 39,000 feet, but I'll be
sending it at sea level.)
Then there's the little matter of cellphones. Turns out that there's
really not much evidence that cellphones cause cockpit interference;
no study has ever been able to establish proof. In fact, there's now a
discussion about perhaps relaxing the restrictions on cellphones on
I just hope they know what they're doing. Removing the ban means you
might be the unlucky slob who has the loudmouth yakking away next to
you for four hours. At this point, planes are the last refuge of
people who want to hear themselves think or watch movies.