Joe Sharkey, the New York Times's air travel writer, files a weak report on Wi-Fi in planes: I'm a big fan of Sharkey, a terrific reporter and industry appraiser, but I don't think he focused on the little details here. He's right that it's hard to use a laptop comfortably in coach and that most planes lack outlets in coach.
But I'm afraid he disregards the evidence I see on every flights I'm on of any duration in the last year: people are using laptops all the time, no matter the discomfort. And many regular business travelers still score upgrades into business or first class where there are generally outlets and more room. Battery life is also less an issue with modern laptops. Any laptop sold in the last 3 to 4 years can usually eke out 3 to 5 hours of use on a charge, and extra batteries carried by road warriors extend that, of course.
I'm on the same page with Sharkey, as he quotes Aircell's CEO, about the use of smartphones with Wi-Fi, where it's $8 per flight instead of $10 to $13 for a session on a laptop.
Sharkey gets some of the facts wrong about pricing, too, which is unfortunate. Aircell is currently setting prices for its Gogo Inflight Internet service network wide, while Sharkey attributes all the pricing levels and decisions to AirTran. At some point, airlines may choose to get Aircell to price packages differently, and Aircell has been straightforward with me and others about its plans to introduce more kinds of pricing (like monthly subscriptions), and integrate billing and service with aggregators like iPass (with what I'm sure will be reduced pricing based on per-company usage).
Sharkey also says that AirTran will be the first domestic carrier with fleet-wide Wi-Fi, which simply won't be correct. Virgin America, while not a major carrier with 28 planes, is a national airline (not a regional one), and is a week or two away from full fleet coverage, as I track it.
On the demand side, Sharkey picks up from his buddy Joe Brancatelli, another writer I admire and follow. Brancatelli has been beating the drum "zero proof" of interest in these services for years, and I am afraid that until the airlines and Aircell choose to release actual numbers about usage--instead of just "exceeded expectations"--his argument carries water.
I have no idea whether a million paid sessions on Gogo have happened so far or 10,000. I can't imagine Delta would proceed with its fleet-wide rollout (ready by around third quarter, the company is saying) without significant usage so far, nor would American and AirTran commit without having seen session numbers that were compelling.
As far as the price being too high for the various audiences on planes, I still don't buy into that argument. If you're an executive whose time is worth $100s per hour, $10 to $13 for a session (less than 3 hours and 3 or more hours, respectively) seems like a number too low to even think about. For more general business travelers, gaining back mid-day connectivity and productivity is certainly worth the price.
But I think the big sign-on will come when corporations via direct deals with Aircell and via iPass, Boingo, and others, negotiate substantially lower session rates that are part of bulk or minimum deals. Use 1,000 sessions or more a month and pay $5, for instance. In those kinds of arrangements, the individual user isn't making a purchase decision, the company is, and the business traveler never whips out his or her credit card. They fire up the connection software, click the login button, and are connected.