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Home  /  geekspeak  /  The future of flight looks noisy

The future of flight looks noisy

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One of the standards of modern air travel is that you’ll be asked — sometimes in multiple languages, depending on your choice of airline — to switch off all your electronic devices when taking off and landing as an added safety precaution. It’s OK to use electronics while in flight on most larger aircraft, but nothing with a radio, on the grounds that they may interfere with the in-flight electronics. There’s plenty of debate about how true that actually is, but for my money, I’m willing to forego a little inconvenience of switching to airplane mode in return for the plane not heading straight into a mountain. Call me fussy, if you must, but I think that’s a decent deal, even if the odds are slim that my device will interfere anyway.

Switching things off has only been a problem for me recently when it came time to switch off my (or any) e-Ink reader, as you’ll in fact use more power and signal fully switching the screen off rather than just leaving it on the standard screen image. Air travel has never been the most comfortable of pursuits — even if you’re wealthy enough to afford business class or better seating — but what it has typically involved has been cutting yourself off from the outside world for as long as your flight took place. Sure, in-flight telephones have been a stock standard on most planes for some time, but at the kinds of rates that more or less ensure that nobody uses them — or at least nobody I’ve ever noticed, and I’ve done more than my fair share of plane travel.

That’s something that’s changing very rapidly; many overseas flights are utilising in-flight Internet, and it’s something that’s being actively tested by the major carriers locally; both Qantas and Virgin are trialing in-flight Wi-Fi access. It’s initially only touted as a way to deliver entertainment from an on-board server, but both airlines appear to be investigating the possibilities for onboard net access as well. Qantas is also trialing iPads as delivery devices for entertainment services, although those will be rather heavily locked down units for entertainment only.

In-flight Internet’s a tricky thing to manage; not only do you have the grim spectre of folks accessing content of a dubious nature, but opening up the wider Internet also means potentially opening up conversation channels via applications such as Skype or Facetime. Suddenly, the normally relatively quiet plane interior could become a maelstrom of chatter. Given that longer haul flights often cross several time zones and Internet access means you’d be able to speak to anyone in any time zone, it even means that the airline-imposed “sleep times” — typically when the lights are dimmed in order to encourage folks to sleep — might become interrupted on a rather regular basis.

I’m a little torn as to the utility in this case. I’ve no doubt that on longer flights — essentially anything longer than standard Australian domestic flights, so above five hours or so — I’d welcome Internet access as a basic way to divert myself by idly browsing the Web, keeping up with email and maybe doing a little light work. At the same time, I don’t welcome the idea of a plane that I’m stuck in for the next nine to nineteen hours being full of folks talking extra loud because they’ve already got headphones on and can’t hear themselves properly in the first place. What do you think?


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