Sky surfing [Global Times]
(Global Times Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) An airplane passenger uses a laptop Photo: CFP
Killing time on flights is tough for Internet addicts bereft of their drug. Without being able to check on the latest gossip, refresh their microblogs, or upload photos, the hours of flight can seem almost as much of an eternity as they are for smokers.But airlines have been figuring out ways to supply the addicts' buzz. A number of overseas carriers, mostly in the US, have been offering in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity for their passengers for a few years now.Delta has 3,443 domestic US flights equipped with Wi-Fi connectivity, the most among its domestic peers, while Southwest and US Airways follow on Delta's tail with 2,320 and 1,293 flights, as the results of a survey by US-based flight search website routehappy.com showed in late June.According to a survey conducted by Honeywell Aerospace, which makes in-flight Wi-Fi service equipment, almost 90 percent of the more than 3,000 in-flight Wi-Fi users surveyed would trade in a physical amenity such as flight snacks or extra legroom for a better wireless connection on their flight. This "signals a shift among consumers in the definition of airplane passenger comfort and confirms an increasing demand for global, transoceanic, fast and consistent in-flight wireless connectivity," said the survey released in September.But for China, sometimes on the cutting edge of Wi-Fi and mobile service, a leap into the in-flight tech vanguard is far off.Fledgling market Air China has been the most active domestic airline in providing Wi-Fi service. But even the national flag carrier hasn't done much.On July 3, Air China offered a Wi-Fi connection on a flight from Beijing to Chengdu, enabling fliers to check their Weibo and e-mail above 3,000 meters via the network of British satellite communications group Inmarsat, the first such trial by a domestic airline. Air China had previously put local area network (LAN) in place on its aircraft. Hainan Airlines, another domestic airline, now offers LAN services as well, but has yet to connect its fliers to the outside world.But despite Air China's maiden flight offering Wi-Fi connectivity, there's no word of an official launch of the service across its fleet.Air China has now been testing Wi-Fi mainly on four domestic routes connecting Beijing and the cities of Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the airline said Thursday in response to e-mailed questions sent by the Global Times. International routes flying to Southeast Asia and Europe are also been included in the trial, the airline said, adding it plans to provide the service on the aircraft en-route to the Americas and Australia in the future. But the airline revealed no plans to roll out Wi-Fi connectivity, citing the time and expenditure required on installing the Wi-Fi service equipment on its aircraft as the main impediment. Without disclosing the exact investment, Air China said that it's a fledging market. China's marketplace for in-flight connectivity has great growth space, Rupert Pearce, CEO of Inmarsat, told the Global Times. In December, Inmarsat launched its first Inmarsat-5 F1 satellite, part of the satellite operator's investment worth $1.6 billion into the next generation of global mobile broadband communications, which is scheduled heading for a full global coverage by the end of 2014, according to Pearce.With the new satellite constellation in place in the future, Inmarsat hopes to expand its footprint in the Chinese market, in addition to its partnership with Air China, Pearce said.Safety fears But while Wi-Fi in flight seems likely soon, fears remain. Cost and safety are the two top concerns for domestic passengers. A survey of more than 500 Chinese passengers and some 400 domestic aviation industry insiders showed 69 percent of the passengers and 61 percent of the industry insiders are not willing to pay for the onboard Wi-Fi services. Only 6 percent of passengers and 3 percent of insiders were willing to pay whatever the cost, according to a report published in late July by Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post."We have been offering the Wi-Fi service for free so far," Air China said, revealing the cumulative flying time with onboard Wi-Fi has reached 1,500 hours since July.Charges per specific time interval or flight are common on overseas airlines that provide passengers with Wi-Fi service. "It's likely that domestic airlines will follow their overseas counterparts and charge fliers for Wi-Fi usage," Sun Ruishan, director of the Research Institute of Civil Aviation Safety at the Civil Aviation University of China, told the Global Times Monday.But the flag carrier stressed that it will break the pattern agreed on by its overseas peers and provide the service for free - at least for the moment. Sun also downplayed safety concerns, saying onboard Internet access is enabled through a Wi-Fi system picking up signal through the satellite network and then distributed within the cabin, instead of directly connecting to signal towers on the ground. As a reflection of safety concerns, Air China, the technology pioneer in the country, still excludes the use of smartphones during flight, while listing laptops and tablet computers as the eligible gadgets facilitating Internet surfing. Globally, safety worries over the use of onboard Wi-Fi are now seen as outdated, as Gogo, an in-flight Wi-Fi provider, is reportedly launching a service allowing texting and talking on their smartphones to lift a long ban on US airlines. "There is strong demand for this service and the ability to text in flight," CNBC reported in November, citing Brad Jaehn, vice president of Gogo.The existing worries won't be a big impediment to the development of China's in-flight market, Sun emphasized. "A flight that loses touch with the outside world for hours will increasingly be unimaginable in today's world with all sorts of sophisticated mobile gadgets," Sun commented."For businessmen, the availability of the Internet would be particularly important, regardless of the costs required," he said, calling for deployment of the service as soon as possible.
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