JetBlue is poised to become the first U.S. airline to test in-flight Internet service. They're testing one plane that allows access to Yahoo e-mail and instant messaging, plus some BlackBerry access.
But JetBlue is not the only airline trying to bring the Internet to the skies. Starting next year, American Airlines and Virgin America are expected to be the first carriers to allow full broadband Internet access in planes.
That means that if you bring a laptop, or another device with WiFi, like an iPhone, on the plane, you can wile away your hours online. You'll be able to do just about everything you would normally do on your home DSL or cable modem connection.
Analyst Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research says that while the initial Internet offerings may be limited to some carriers, that will change soon.
"I think that by the end of 2009, it will be the exception rather than the rule to get on at least a mainline plane, a 737, [or a] Airbus 320, that doesn't have in-flight Internet access," Harteveldt said.
"And frankly, airlines that choose not to have this will lose business."
Frequent fliers may remember that some overseas airlines, including Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines once offered a satellite-based Internet service. But that service was discontinued at the end of 2006, mostly because the gear was expensive and took far too long to install.
Plus, the airlines had a hard time recouping their costs from customers. The company that will be installing the cellular-based air-to-ground gear for American Airlines and Virgin America is called AirCell. Jack Blumenstein is the company's CEO.
"What we wanted to be able to do was to deliver a service at something, a price that people who are used to acquiring broadband services on the ground would feel is a very good, fair price," Blumenstein said.
"So think $10, think $9.95, to have a full Internet session at 35,000 feet and 500 miles an hour."
AirCell says that it can cover the entire continental United States with only 90 cellular towers that point skyward. With nothing but clouds to get in the way, their signals can travel a lot farther than when they point to the ground. Blumenstein also adds that his company's equipment can be put in very fast.
"We do that by installing it at a single overnight stop at a gate at a major airport," Blumenstein said. "You fly in at night, and you go out the next morning and you're now on the broadband network."
However, AirCell's service only works for flights over land. Another company, Row 44, is expecting to bring its satellite-based service to Alaska Airlines' fleet by the end of 2009.