Airline enters cyberspace

By Susan Buckland

By SUSAN BUCKLAND

On May 17, passengers aboard Lufthansa 452 from Munich to Los Angeles became the first to experience what is described as "real-time, wi-fi based, high-speed internet connectivity on a commercial flight route".

Those versed in the language of cyberspace will understand that this means an exciting new era of mobile communications. To be fully wired at 9000m is an undoubted achievement, but the thought leaves me feeling wistful.

The sky used to be the limit, one of the last frontiers where a person could be incommunicado for a decent stretch of time. No phones bleating in your ear. No emails blatting on to a screen and demanding instant answers. In the spam-free world of the sky you could settle down with a glass of something soothing and feel blissfully out of reach of telecommunications tentacles.

Not any more, thanks to Connexion by Boeing, which has provided the satellite connection so Lufthansa passengers can surf the web, send emails with attachments or set up a secure data connection via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to their company's intranet or mail server. In short, the world becomes their virtual oyster.

Lufthansa has done well to steal a march on other airlines wanting to adopt this leading-edge communication service.

Unrestricted in-flight internet access with a laptop or other mobile terminals via wireless Lan (WLAN) is remarkable technology.

And there will be thousands of passengers happy to pay the flat rate of US$29.25 ($48) for the entire flight or a metered option of US$9.95 ($16) for the first half hour and US25c for each minute thereafter.

They can step aboard, secure in the knowledge that a couple of clicks on their streamlined, state-of-the-art laptops will beam them into the office.

There will be no limit to the work they will be able to churn through, providing they don't go to sleep on the job and wake up over the Californian coast, the tab still running on their laptops. If the barrage of instructions from the office begins to pall, a nap could be in order.

But Lufthansa and other airlines interested in following their "connectivity" initiative know that there will be plenty of earnest executives who would rather keep their eyes open with matchsticks than waste a wired opportunity.

Fine if they don't mind clients and colleagues looking over their virtual shoulders. They can also access a free FlyNet onboard internet portal which uses software developed by Lufthansa Systems.

The upshot is constantly updated news, weather, travel, shopping and "lifestyle information". And inevitably, waves of spam.

To avoid being hit with invitations to transform one's life with liposuction, miracle diets and a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunities, I shall stick to a peaceful in-flight routine with the help of the entertainment system.

Earphones will deliver melodies and protect me from the loquacious passenger in the next seat who wants to deliver a blow-by-blow account of his round-the-world travels. Occasionally, I will stare absent-mindedly out of the window at magical cloud formations and far horizon.

Flying high above the clouds, uninterrupted by the pressures of everyday life, I will catch up on reading and movies I never get time for at home and write long-overdue letters. The worry about tasks left undone will evaporate with each passing hour. It is the therapeutic aspect of flying I look forward to.

If it's a long-haul flight I might open the laptop and do a spot of work. But I'll stay offline. For now.

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