Here’s a riddle. What’s more than thirty thousand feet in the air, moving at hundreds of miles an hour, eating a gourmet meal, drinking a glass of Riesling, and is downloading files to his PowerBook at more than 50k/sec?
If you guessed me, you’re right.
With the pervasiveness of the Internet these days, there’s almost nothing more frustrating than spending a long flight without connectivity. Held captive in a flying cigar tube for hours at a time (in many cases far longer than one would spend at their desk during a work day) it’s all a business traveler can do to draft a few emails, and maybe polish a presentation. And what if you forget to download the latest financial data off the company’s VPN, or read that last-minute email from the boss canceling the meeting in Berlin.
Relief is in sight thanks to a pilot program that is part of a joint venture between Boeing, Hughes and Lufthansa called FlyNet. Other air carriers will also work with the Boeing and Hughes venture called “Connection By Boeing” but will have different names for their in-air service.
I was invited aboard Lufthansa’s flight 419 from Washington DC to Frankfurt to experience what is bound to be the biggest revolution in air travel since the invention of the single serving liquor bottle. Flight 419 — and its inbound sister flight from Frankfurt, 418 — are the first to feature broadband Internet access for the duration of the flight.
This experimental project, which is scheduled to run until April, utilizes a network of Ethernet jacks at each seat in business class (along with a 110V power supply in the armrest), and a Wi-Fi connection throughout the plane. Currently the FAA has only approved the Wi-Fi cards installed in the loaner laptops that Lufthansa is providing business class customers for the flight, but when the experiment becomes a reality any Wi-Fi equipped laptop should be able to access the Internet.
I decide to spend the flight working on my own laptop — a new 12″ PowerBook — and forgo the wireless connection rather than use the loaner Windows machine. Before we take off though I turn on my airport and check out the signal, which is strong and clear all over the enormous 747 aircraft. The access points lock out any Wi-Fi card that doesn’t have a registered MAC address, so it’s impossible to even log on with an unapproved card.
The service is activated about thirty minutes into the flight, so I plug in my PowerBook, and I’m suddenly online. Well not exactly suddenly. The connection to the Internet is made by a proxy server, and requires leaving a pop-up window open. But I’m running Safari with popup blocking enabled, and at first I can’t get online.
Once I resolve that, I sign onto iChat (and if you’re reading this during my return flight on February 18, you can look for me online at the AIM address “davidinair” starting about an hour after my 1300 departure. That’s 7:00 am EST.) and confirm that I’m online. I kick open a connection and start downloading some updates, pulling consistent 50k/sec connections from Apple and some other high speed servers.
There’s a slight lag between hitting a page and getting a response, although that’s not really surprising since my connection is traveling through the floor (and three miles of cabling) to an onboard Linux server, which in turn is routing my request to a Hughes satellite orbiting above the earth. And that is getting its connection from terra firma, spinning below me.
And then I’m surfing websites, checking email, transferring files, updating my iCal calendars — basically I’m doing everything I would while on the ground, just higher up.
The connection only encounters two blackout spots as communications are handed over between satellites, but neither time is it more than five minutes.
It is, I must say, a bit unnerving to be Imming your loved ones during turbulence. I’m pretty sure I upset my wife after I write “aargh. Bummphy fleigfht, canyt typed” or something to that effect, which is the best I can manage as I am jostled about the cabin.
Still the connection runs smoothly despite the rough air, and it is a bit reassuring to know that we aren’t moving around so much that we lost contact with the satellite. I spent a good eight hours online but it’s impossible for me to tell. I was so lost in chatting and watching QuickTime trailers that I forgot to be annoyed by the length of the flight.
All throughout the airplane flight attendants and passengers mingled with laptops in hand, surfing from all over the plane. I remember my first flight to Europe years ago where everyone stood around smoking cigarettes instead.
It might be a bit premature to start booking your travel (unless it’s for flight 419, which will only have the service until April) if you’re looking for broadband. Lufthansa, who is way ahead of other carriers in the roll out process, won’t begin to equip their fleet until the beginning of 2004. The process of transitioning the fleet won’t be completed until 2005.
There’s no reason other domestic or international carriers couldn’t roll out a similar service, in fact Lufthansa is encouraging other partners. Each new partner lowers the overall cost of deployment for the satellite services, making it more affordable to those involved.
British Airways will be the next carrier to experiment with the service, and will reportedly be using the in-plane setup developed by Lufthansa.
Connectivity won’t come without a price, albeit a rather modest one. Lufthansa executives estimate the service will roll out for something around $35.00. At that rate the airlines are likely to rake it in hand over fist.
Airport Extreme, indeed.