Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wi-Fi at 35,000 ft

Road Work: A weekly look at business travel
Wi-Fi flies to Canada

Bert Archer
Los Angeles-Toronto — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Tuesday, Dec. 08, 2009 4:53PM EST

A big sticker on the plane read “Wi-Fi Air Canada,” and the flight attendants made an announcement about the plane's new Internet capabilities. But it was only when he noticed his seatmate checking scores that Brian Strauss, 44, took out his laptop and logged on at 35,000 feet.

“The first thing I checked was to check the headlines,” said the president and chief executive officer of Southern California manufacturer Henry Company, who is also a Notre Dame fan. “I think you'd expect this sort of thing to be hit and miss, but it locked right in.”

The introduction of Wi-Fi service on Canadian flights – on two Air Canada Airbus 319s flying from Toronto and Montreal to L.A., and only over American airspace – signals the end of a year-long delay for Canadian business travellers.

This convenience comes via GoGo, an American company that has been providing Wi-Fi service to U.S. airlines since last year. It will soon be working with an Ottawa-based company called SkySurf, which bid successfully for the rights to air-to-ground frequency in Canadian airspace.

SkySurf head Raed Almasri says the company is listening to feedback from the trial run – who uses Wi-Fi in the air, for what and when – and then will make deals with owners of wireless networks across the country. His goal is nationwide air-to-ground Internet by the end of 2010. For the duration of the trial run, and possibly beyond, should Air Canada choose to extend its arrangement with GoGo, the service will work only in American airspace.

On the L.A. flight, some initial problems connecting were resolved, and from that point on, the service was robust enough to handle streaming video and even online role-playing games.

“It works better than [service on] United, I can tell you that,” says Steven Conly, Strauss's seatmate.

Conly, 26, is the North American sales and marketing manager for aerospace company Dynacon. He has been using onboard Wi-Fi for about four months on United and AirTran. On this Air Canada flight, he did a little shopping, read the newspaper online, e-mailed the office and checked the scores.

“I wanted to see if the Nets won. They did,” the Mississauga-based exec said. “Then I checked on the Raptors. They were a disaster.”

But mostly, business travellers on the flight worked. Strauss had never used in-flight Internet and seized the chance to get some end-of-day work done. “Instead of getting into the hotel at 11, 11:30 at night and catching up, I can do it here and be free and clear when I land.”

He planned to use the hour he saved sleeping. During the trial run, which ends on Jan. 29, the service costs $9.95 (U.S.) for the duration of the five-hour flight. “For a business traveller, it's the cost of doing business,” Strauss said. But, he added, “I'd probably raise my eyebrows at anything over $20.”

An American investment banker sitting nearby, who has been using in-flight Wi-Fi for about a year, concurred. “It's about the only [travel] expense the firm doesn't complain about,” he said.

His family likes it too.

The first thing he did when he logged on last year for the first time was call his wife on a voice-over-Internet service. When a flight attendant asked him to put his phone away, he explained that it's just like checking e-mail. Although some U.S. airlines have asked GoGo to block voice applications, Air Canada is – at least for the moment – not joining them. Google chat, complete with voice and video, worked fine, with occasional video freeze-ups.

Of the 14 business-class travellers, about half made some use of the system, one checking e-mail, another his investment portfolio. And though everyone interviewed said the Wi-Fi should make them more productive, for the time being most were having a little fun with it.

Probably every e-mail sent that night contained at least a mention of the fact that it was coming from the troposphere.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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