Skies Become Friendlier For In-Flight Wi-Fi Wi-Fi is now available at 35,000 feet. Roughly 1 in 3 domestic planes already has it, and the number is growing. But one industry analyst says that many passengers who could be logging on aren't.
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Skies Become Friendlier For In-Flight Wi-Fi

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Skies Become Friendlier For In-Flight Wi-Fi

Skies Become Friendlier For In-Flight Wi-Fi

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Wireless Internet is now available at 35,000 feet. Roughly one in three domestic passenger jets already has Wi-Fi, and the number is growing. You can check email, share photos, download music, even tweet.

But all of this comes with a price, as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentlemen, we just passed the 10,000 feet on our way up to our chosen altitude. If you brought on board any portable electronic devices, you're more than welcome to use them at this time. This aircraft is equipped with Internet...

WENDY KAUFMAN: To use it, you simply turn on the Wi-Fi, connect to the in-flight network and - most of the time at least - that's it. It's surprisingly fast.

About a third of the passengers onboard this Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to San Jose logged on. Some used iPhones. Julie Alverez was on her laptop.

Ms. JULIE ALVEREZ: Right now, I'm actually downloading the new version of Mozilla, but other than that, I was just checking and playing on Farm Town. It's a game on Facebook.

KAUFMAN: Facebook is the most popular website for Alaska's passengers. Google, Yahoo!, Twitter and YouTube come next. Travelers are also using email and logging onto their corporate networks. One first-class Bloody Mary-sipping passenger was listening to the Rolling Stones on Pandora while he was doing his email. And then, there was passenger Katie Rose.

Ms. KATIE ROSE: I'm trying to go in a kayak tour.

KAUFMAN: So you're trying to book a kayak tour from an airplane?

Ms. ROSE: Yes. I think I just did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAUFMAN: What do you think of this?

Ms. ROSE: Oh, I think it's wonderful. I hope it stays free forever.

KAUFMAN: But it won't. Right now, it's free on Alaska Airlines because of a special pricing promotion.

About a thousand U.S. jets have been equipped with Wi-Fi. AirTran and Virgin America have it on all their flights. Delta and Alaska are quickly moving in that direction.

How does it work? The most widely used system comes from a company called Aircell. It has a hundred special cell towers that point upward, connect with antennas on the belly of the plane and turn the passenger cabin into a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Getting online costs about $5 for a 90-minute flight. On flights longer than three hours, the price climbs to as much as 12.95.

Some package deals are less expensive. But industry consultant Michael Planey says for many, the price is too high, and lots of passengers who could are not logging on.

Mr. MICHAEL PLANEY (In-flight Entertainment and Communications Consultant): The airlines have managed to add fees, instead of raising fares, to just about everything. And when a passenger gets onboard, the last thing they want to do is get hit with another fee.

KAUFMAN: It probably doesn't matter to travelers that Aircell - not the airline - sets the price and collects nearly all the fee.

Despite the cost, some passengers, albeit a relatively small number, are willing to pay. Dave Borgesse, whose employer will foot the bill, actively looks for flights with Wi-Fi.

Mr. DAVE BORGESSE: It's helped my productivity immensely. I'm still connected. I can work the whole time. So love it. It makes the flights go by faster, and I've spent a lot less money on magazines, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAUFMAN: Still, there are committed nonusers. Some don't like the idea of being tethered to the office in the one place you used to be able to escape. Others just want to read a book without feeling guilty, or, like Paul Rasher, they just want to do nothing.

Mr. PAUL RASHER: I'd rather just sit back and relax, and so I don't think it's that great of an idea.

KAUFMAN: One idea U.S. passengers have empathically rejected is in-flight phone calls using services like Skype. So for now at least, those transmissions will be blocked.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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