Frequent Flyers Get Better Connected

More and more airports and airplanes offer Wi-Fi and power

Photo: Virgin America

Call it the airport electric-outlet slide: You stoop, crane your neck, do a quarter turn, and repeat until you find an open power socket. Then you make a mad dash to get to it before someone else.

Broadband Internet and plug-in power aren't luxuries anymore. In fact, road warriors apparently care more about providing sustenance for their laptops than for themselves. Recently, when American Airlines queried frequent fliers on the airport amenities that were most important to them, Wi-Fi came at the top of the list, and the availability of power came second.

Ironically, sometimes power is the harder one to provide. Airports have been quick to add Wi-Fi, and more than 200 of them offer it for free, according to Wififreespot.com. But new electrical outlets can cost thousands apiece, so airports usually add them slowly, during renovations, if at all. Even when there are outlets, it can be hard to find them. Jeff Sandquist, a Microsoft employee, started a wiki called AirPower to list them. The page took off within days, and its readers regularly supplement it.

Airlines are starting to provide power themselves—at least on board, if not in the airport. Tiny San Francisco–based Virgin America Airlines offers power at every seat; two of the largest U.S. airlines, Delta and American, have outlets at each first- and business-class seat and in a few rows in coach.

Wireless access is coming as well. British Airways, Portugal's TAP, and Ireland's Ryanair already offer mobile service from provider OnAir, based in Geneva. OnAir uses GSM and Wi-Fi to let travelers make phone calls, send text messages, and connect to the Internet. Other airlines planning to offer OnAir include Hong Kong Airlines, Egyptair, and Qatar Airways.

In the United States, where it's against regulations to use cellphones in flight, Virgin America already offers Wi-Fi on every plane, and Delta hopes to have Internet access on more than 300 airplanes by the end of this year. American plans to have 318 planes equipped with Wi-Fi, a little over half its fleet, by 2010.

In today's ultraconnected world, you're expected to read e-mail and answer business calls even on a tropical island vacation, but at least everyone understands you'll be off-line while in transit. Soon, even that little respite will be gone.

This article originally appeared in print as "The Well-Connected Traveler."

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