September 20, 2005, 8:27 AM — Opposition to a federal proposal to allow wireless phone calls on U.S. airline flights has air carriers and federal regulators considering a less controversial alternative that could still help busy executives turn idle travel time into productive work time: wireless Internet connections.
In December, the Federal Communications Commission proposed relaxing its nearly 15-year ban on wireless phone use during U.S. flights. Since then, the agency has received thousands of messages opposing the idea. Travelers, as well as flight attendant groups, claim cell phone use on airplanes would cause fights between passengers talking on the phone and those annoyed by the conversations. Members of Congress have also objected.
"The last thing most air passengers want is to be forced to listen to their neighbor chat on their cell phone about their ailments, dating problems, the latest reality TV show...," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said at a hearing in July.
As a result, airlines and wireless carriers are testing Wi-Fi networks. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration gave Verizon Airfone and UnitedAirlines approval to test Wi-Fi equipment for use in flight after demonstrating that it would not interfere with airline instrumentation. Meanwhile, Cingular Wireless wrote to the FAA saying passengers should be encouraged to "tap, not talk" during flights.
Frequent travelers seem to approve. Christopher Faulkner, CEO of C I Host, a Web hosting company, flies 200,000 miles every year. He would rather have Wi-Fi than cell phone service when he's in the air. "You can wait two hours to make a call, especially if you can check e-mail through Wi-Fi," he says.
Foreign airlines such as Lufthansa, SAS and Japan Airlines already offer Wi-Fi service during flights, says Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade group. He seeslittle opposition to in-flight Wi-Fi because computers are a common sight on long flights.
Passengers using Wi-Fi in flight may have security concerns, such as a rogue user tapping into a fellow passenger's data. Faulkner says he would want to know the reputation of the in-flight Wi-Fi service provider before he worked on sensitive documents while flying. But with the right security, the benefits of in-flight Wi-Fi outweigh the risks. "Right now," Faulkner says, "I'm getting paid to sit in an airport or sit in an airplane."