LONDON: There is that moment, after everyone has settled into their seats and the crew has closed the aircraft doors, when I flip my phone into flight-safe mode and think: “No one can get me now.” No calls, no emails, no news — good or bad. The clock on the phone runs stubbornly to the time back home.
After take-off, there is a buzz, when the seat belt signs are turned off, people visit the toilet, the crew serve food and passengers watch the airline’s films or the ones they have downloaded to their tablets and laptops.
A little later, the cabin lights are turned off, most of the passengers — remarkably, to an insomniac like me — fall asleep, and I can begin the long contemplation of my life.
TIME FOR CONTEMPLATION
Some people seek escape at spas and retreats. But to me, there is no solitude deeper than an overnight, long-haul flight, especially on business, when I am travelling alone and my snoring neighbours are strangers.
I often reflect on the technological miracle we are engaged in. A long thin tube, filled with hundreds of people, hurtling through the night, tens of thousands of feet high, flown by pre-programmed computer overseen by two pilots in the cockpit.
I think about where I have come from and where I am going, of the countries we are flying over that I will never visit. Possibly because I come from a family displaced over the generations, roots seem less substantial so high above the Earth.
And as the trip is about work, I think about how I managed to land the job that lets me do all this and how long I can carry on doing it. All this distinguishes a long-haul trip from a sleepless night in my bed.
There is film-watching too, some reading, and the odd drift into sleep, especially as the dawn light creeps under the shutters.
Then there is the captain’s voice hoping that we have managed to get some rest, breakfast, landing cards, people retrieving their things from the overhead lockers, the brightness outside, the descent, and “cabin crew, 10 minutes to landing”.
When the wheels hit the runway you can, these days, turn your phone on, await a signal from an unfamiliar provider and watch the emails, WhatsApps and newsfeeds unspooling. What news from home? What has happened in the world? The soul-searching is over.
Now, it may be over for good. This year, Deloitte forecasts, about a quarter of the world’s aircraft will be equipped with “in-flight connectivity”.
Wi-Fi is coming to the skies. In much of the US, it is already there. In Europe, International Airlines Group, made up of British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling, is rolling out in-flight internet. So is Qantas, and many others.
“I don’t have to use Wi-Fi on flights, of course, but just knowing it is there will change the experience.”
Deloitte says it has so far been mostly business travellers who use onboard Wi-Fi, passing on the expense to their companies. But ordinary flyers want it too.
“Demand for connectivity is now so strong that consumers would prioritise it over most other amenities,” Deloitte says.
One survey found that, offered a range of in-flight services, 54 per cent of flyers would opt for Wi-Fi — nearly three times as many as would choose a meal.
What do these passengers want to do with their Wi-Fi? According to Deloitte, they want to respond to emails, talk on the phone (when this is allowed) or “share selfies from the sky”.
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE
Wi-Fi is a large potential money earner for the airlines and service providers. A London School of Economics report forecast that in-flight Wi-Fi would generate US$130 billion of revenue by 2035. But some of it will be free. To get its service going, British Airlines is offering a free hour of Wi-Fi for a limited period.
I don’t have to use Wi-Fi on flights, of course, but just knowing it is there will change the experience.
If you are expecting a howl of protest from me, you will not get it. The spread of in-flight broadband is inevitable. The technology is advancing, there is intense competition among providers and people, or at least some of them, want it.
Change happens. But those long silent thought-filled nights? They were special.
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