In-Flight Internet Access: Although Much Wanted, Little Apparent Demand

Many business travelers--and I'm one of them--spent the weekend scratching their heads over the inability of Boeing to make a go of its Connexion in-flight Internet access service.
Many business travelers--and I'm one of them--spent the weekend scratching their heads over the inability of Boeing to make a go of its Connexion in-flight Internet access service.Granted, it was a tough week to be wishing for niceties such as surfing the Web when a terrorist plot had just been foiled--and when so many air passengers were happy just to settle into their regulation 17.2-inch seats and actually leave the gate. And as Mitch Wagner pointed out in his Editor's Note yesterday--backed up by a plethora of excellent InformationWeek articles (see here, here, and here)--perhaps the increased security precautions mean it's time to consider leaving our laptops at home rather than complain that they aren't as useful as they could be in the air. Of course, if you're flying in and out of London, you don't have a choice in the matter: no laptop or no go. But sooner or later things are going to calm down, and my guess is that laptops will continue to be a fixture for business travelers.

That said, there's a mystery at the heart of why Boeing needed to pull the plug on Connexion late last week. I don't mean a mystery about the business decision. Boeing reportedly spent more than $1 billion trying to keep the 6-year-old program alive, and with just 11 airlines signed on, the company was obviously bleeding cash. And industry observers were speculating that Boeing chose last week to make its announcement precisely because of the backlash against laptops on board.

No, the mystery is why it failed. You'd think in-flight broadband would be a no-brainer. After all, it's getting to the point when people won't even stop for a cup of coffee unless free Internet access is thrown in with the non-dairy creamer. So why wouldn't they jump with joy at the thought of ubiquitous connectivity at 30,000 feet?

Sure, it was pricey. You paid about $10 an hour, or $30 per flight, for the privilege of being online. Performance could also apparently be spotty (I never had the chance to use the service myself, so I'm going on published reports), as it depended on how many of your fellow travelers were online at the same time. Still, you would have thought that people's hunger to be connected would have outweighed these inconveniences.

I'm a perfect example. I'm no big spender, but I would have forked over my $30 in a heartbeat to be able to work online during the many tedious flights between San Francisco and Chicago I take every year. Judging from all the people who sigh when they have to log off (the San Francisco airport is one big hotspot) and board the plane, I don't think I'm alone.

I'd like to emphasize here that I'm arguing for in-flight Internet access, not cell phone use. Count me among the 85% of all travelers polled who say they'd rather slit their wrists than have to listen to someone else's inane cell phone conversation while being held captive in economy class. (OK, I'm paraphrasing. But I mean it.)

But connecting to the Internet instead of watching the latest Owen Wilson or Hilary Duff movie? I'm there--and so is everyone else I've talked to. In fact, I haven't run into a single person who thinks a wired airplane is a bad idea. Even the people who love the idea of being occasionally unreachable--and I sympathize, I sympathize--recognize that they can simply refrain from logging on. Like the old doctor joke goes, "So doing that hurts? Then don't do it." Unlike cell phone service, in-flight Internet access shouldn't inconvenience--or enrage--your neighbor.

Yet, puzzling enough, there was virtually no interest in the service. On the international flights that actually offered Connexion, usage was in the "low single digits," according to Boeing. And no one taking domestic planes even had the choice. Although Boeing inked major deals with United, American, and Delta in June 2001, Sept. 11 put an end to them. After that date, U.S.-based carriers were cutting, not adding, amenities for passengers.

That was part of the problem right there. Boeing had to sell the service to airlines, not to consumers. And airlines have simply not been in the position to spend money on what are viewed as extraneous features.

Happily, other options are on the way. Both Live TV--a subsidiary of JetBlue Airways--and AirCell have said they're working on in-flight Internet access services that they hope to have ready next year. Such services are expected to be cheaper, and of higher quality, than the Boeing offering. We'll see if the airlines find them attractive enough to offer to what I can't help but still believe would be a very eager constituency.

What do you think? What would you pay to have unlimited Internet access while in flight? Are there any downsides to this being an option for air travelers? Let me know!