The End Of Offline In Flight? Say It Ain't So A handful of airlines are introducing onboard Internet access, letting passengers surf the Web and check their e-mail — for a fee. For the airlines, it's a much-needed source of revenue. For some business travelers, it's a way to stay productive in the air. But critics have raised concerns about security and privacy. Commentator Eric Weiner also is worried — for different reasons.

The End Of Offline In Flight? Say It Ain't So

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A handful of airlines have introduced onboard Internet access. Passengers can surf the Web and check their email for a fee. For the airlines, it's a much needed source of revenue. And for some business travelers, it's a way to stay productive in the air. For critics, there are worries about security and privacy. Commentator Eric Weiner is also worried - but for different reasons.

ERIC WEINER: Most people hate flying. I love it. Nothing makes me happier than a long flight - the longer, the better. I once flew nonstop from New York to Bangkok - 17 hours of pure bliss. I packed two books and actually read them. I stared out the window and actually had thoughts.

Some of my best ideas take flight at 35,000 feet. It could be the thin air up there, but I think there's another reason: Disconnection. No email, no cell phones, no guilt, either, because at 35,000 feet I am offline. Don't you love that word, offline? I do. But it's about to go the way of other cherished expressions like out of the office and on vacation.

Every culture has its out-of-bounds venues - circumscribed places and times where the normal demands of society no longer apply: Buddhist monks on meditation retreats, college students on spring break. Instinctively, we humans recognize the value of tuning out the world, at least for a while. We know we will return refreshed and ready to cope again.

These precious spaces, though, have been steadily shrinking as technology's reach has expanded. Oddly, we don't put up much of a fight, but rather embrace this erosion of our leisure space. Many people love their BlackBerrys and iPhones, viewing them as tools of liberation, rather than what they really are: electronic tethers, like those ankle bracelets that some convicts have to wear.

The airline cabin represents the last refuge from ubiquitous connectivity - the last place where we are forced, for better or worse, to be with ourselves, with our thoughts.

But, I hear the technothusiats say, just don't log on. No one's forcing you. You can always opt out. If only. Every technology, from the car to the cell phone, starts out as optional and soon becomes mandatory. We can't opt out, lest we be labeled an out-of-touch Luddite or, worse, old.

But, the technothusiats coo, onboard Internet access will be so convenient. Those who can log on in the air will enjoy a competitive advantage. Perhaps, but, remember: The first person to send a package Federal Express also enjoyed a competitive advantage - for about two seconds. Once everyone can send a package overnight, the advantage disappears, and all that remains is the expectation.

So, please, please, airline executives, I beg of you: Don't do it. You've already deprived me of leg room, nourishment and dignity. Don't take away my peace of mind, too.

NORRIS: Eric Weiner is a former NPR reporter. He's also the author of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World." To comment about this essay, go to the opinion section of npr.org.

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