Inflight WiFi can be a divisive subject. For many business travellers, or those who have a nicotine-esque relationship to Facebook, the ability to stay connected in the air is a godsend. But many see flight as the last bastion of disconnected calm, an enforced time out for reading, reflection or watching movies you wouldn’t bother to view at home.
Even airlines can’t agree on its value. On Wednesday, United, Delta and American announced that they're within weeks of launching Internet service on international trips. And earlier this month, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad announced that all its flights would be connected by the end of 2014. But the same week, Qantas decided to ditch its pilot program, which had offered the service on its A380s. (It’s not a big issue in Canada yet: Just two Air Canada flights, between Los Angeles and Toronto and Los Angeles and Montreal, offer Internet service.)
According to Qantas, the number of people who took advantage of WiFi during the trial was “extremely low.” Relatively small download limits (between 9 MB and 35 MB; a movie is about 800MB) and spotty service spurred complaints. As well, the service was offered mainly on overnight flights. “People preferred to sleep than surf the web,” the airline said in a statement.
At Etihad, offering WiFi is part of its luxe carrier image. The airline’s “Wi-Fly” is the result of a $1-billion (U.S.) agreement with Panasonic Avionics, according to CEO James Hogan. “We … offer our guests the most engaging and dynamic inflight entertainment options,” he said in a statement.
So is sky-high WiFi worth it? A look at the pros and cons.
Working flights: People who fly for work often have a lot on their plates. The ability to have access to all your contacts and information is precious (and can be a leg up on people who fly on WiFi-less planes). According to a quick poll of passengers in Air Canada’s Maple Leaf Lounge at Toronto’s Pearson airport this week, business-class travellers are almost universally in favour of midair connectivity.
Elizabeth McAlister, a UN international development consultant on her way across the Atlantic on Lufthansa, said her job involves reading endless documents that refer to other documents; being able to jump between them is invaluable. (Lufthansa is the only transatlantic airline serving Canada that offers full WiFi service.)
Entertain yourself: Air Canada’s inflight entertainment is good, but most airlines have sparse offerings. Unless you are really sorry you missed 10,000 B.C. in the theatres, wouldn’t you like the option to catch some BuzzFeed slideshows or sign onto Netflix?
De-stress: According to one Boeing study, more than 30 per cent of people are either anxious or outright afraid of flying. Having access to e-mail, your Facebook page and soothing pictures of kittens in cups can help calm shattered nerves.
Working flights: For busy flyers, cabin-time can be a palate cleanser: It’s often the only quiet part of a road warrior’s day. Ray Dowbenko, who was travelling to Paris on Air Canada, is not overtly opposed to inflight WiFi, but finds its utility overrated. “My world is not going to fall apart from Toronto to Beijing,” he said.
Entertain yourself: Though WiFi services have the ability to block content according to an airline’s requests, no filter is fool-proof, which means that someone, somewhere on your flight will find porn. Do you want to be sitting next to him?
Missed connections: Sometimes, all you want is to talk to someone. And though some flyers cringe at the thought of a chatty seatmate, connections you make on planes can be valuable: As wemetonaplane.com attests, the social and romantic possibilities are endless. But chances for any of this are greatly diminished if the person sitting next to you can chat online with people she already knows.