Start your laptops: Airlines expand Wi-Fi

It's shaping up to be a week of good news from the airlines. (Savor it. They don't come often.) Today, the happy news blast is from AirTran Airways, which has announced that starting this summer, all of its flights will have Wi-Fi on board.

By late July, the thick of summer travel, all 136 of the carrier's jets will have wireless Internet for any passenger who wants to use it. Granted, it will be at a cost of $7.95 to $12.95 per flight, depending on how long the flight is.

I would rather pay per round-trip ticket myself, especially in the case of AirTran, which forces many passengers to connect and change planes in Atlanta. So that $7.95 could potentially become four charges, or nearly $32, for your whole journey if you're on a trip that requires connections.

The service will be handled by Gogo, a company that's racing to fit most of the major carriers with in-flight service. But AirTran will be the first sizable carrier to outfit every aircraft. Virgin America will have all its planes ready by May 25, but it only has 28 planes, and Delta and American are working to outfit their major jets, but their small regional planes will probably never have it. Still, by the end of the year, some 1,000 North American commercial jets will have it. Five months ago, about 30 did.

Still, I think most of us agree by now that Web access is turning into a near necessity. In fact, many upscale hotels have even started dropping charges for it altogether. I don't see airlines doing that anytime soon because of the investment required to outfit all those aircraft with equipment.

But in a few years, when the equipment is paid off (the cost is said to be about $100,000 per plane), the playing field levels out, and all the major airlines offer on-board Wi-Fi, I can see a few industry leaders dropping the charge altogether to set themselves apart from the flock.

Other airlines are dabbling with Wi-Fi right now, but they haven't rolled it out fleet-wide. JetBlue is testing free e-mail and instant messaging access on some flights, and it permanently grants free Wi-Fi at its hub terminal, JFK, and uses its Web site to advise passengers about its other airports that let you log on for free. In addition, Southwest Airlines is testing it on a number of planes, and during the testing period, it's free. Monday, I got tweets from someone I know on a Southwest flight from Orlando.

Right now, the most urgent messages that are being sent from 30,000 feet are along the lines of "Hey! I'm writing this from 30,000 feet!"

But give the technology time. Remember when Webcams first came out? We spent the first few hours staring into them saying "I can't believe I can see you!" and now we carry on like it's a somewhat normal conversation, and most of us even wear clothes.

Of course, some airlines are still in the Stone Age, and in America, it's the carriers with a reputation for being cheap that are leading the way in technology implementation. You can plug in your laptop and watch a movie on a domestic flight Virgin America as if you were at home, but on American Airlines flights to Europe, you have to negotiate a seat assignment that's near an outlet.

That still beats Air France to Paris, on which you'll find nary an outlet at all. Even once plugs are installed to keep up with the way we travel now, don't expect to be able to tweet on your flight to Hawaii: In-flight web access relies on ground towers, so it won't work over oceans.
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