Broadband internet access 35,000 feet up

Dan Warne
10 December, 2007
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While the rest of the media was getting hot and steamy about Qantas’s new logo, I was getting thoroughly juiced about a different aspect of the airline’s relaunch altogether.

From August 2008 onwards, there will be fewer places in the world where you can’t scratch your internet itch (please don’t think too hard about that turn of phrase) [Editor’s note: I’m still dealing with “getting thoroughly juiced” — M.JC.P.]. Qantas has announced its new Airbus A380 aircraft will have broadband in the air.

The system Qantas is touting is really quite extraordinarily comprehensive: you’ll be able to access the net via your MacBook’s inbuilt wireless, or, if you prefer, by plugging an Ethernet cable into the jack in your seat. This privilege even extends to cattle-class passengers.

If you don’t travel with a laptop or WiFi-enabled phone, you can access the net via the seat-back monitor, using Qantas’s apps, which presumably will include a web browser, instant messaging client and some form of e-mail.

And that’s not all. Every seat on the plane will have a power point and USB port, too. Qantas will only say the latter is for recharging USB devices and “viewing content” which hints at the inflight entertainment system’s capability to play videos stored on a USB memory stick or — dare we say — iPod, on the video screen in front of you.

In fact, iPod connectivity is more than likely. Qantas says the inflight entertainment system is being supplied by Panasonic Avionics, the company that a while ago announced its future inflight platform would include compatibility with the iPod.

The launch of the A380 also ushers in a new cabin class — premium economy — with more legroom and seats that recline a bit more. Qantas is saying this class of travel will cost about half of a business class ticket, which is pretty pricey considering Sydney-LA return economy is about $2000 and business class is around $10,000.

The reason I mention the new class of travel is that Qantas says it plans to retrofit premium economy class into its large existing fleet of 747-400s, and that will also include the power points in the seats. So, if getting work done while you fly is important to you, but you pale at the asking price for a business class seat, premium economy may be your best option.

Unfortunately, Qantas isn’t making any promises about internet access on 747s, just saying “no plans at this stage”. It’s not surprising really — the cost of fitting satellite broadband onto an aircraft is upwards of $US500,000 (taking into account the lost revenue while the aircraft sits on the ground), so it’s something that saw very little adoption when Boeing tried to sell it to airlines through its Connexion service. It shut Connexion after losing a billion dollars over several years.

It must rankle Boeing no end that Airbus is going commercial with its inflight internet system just a couple of years later. Then again, it’s hard to believe that the 787 Dreamliner (which has taken many more pre-orders than the long-delayed Airbus A380) wouldn’t include all the cutting-edge technology like inflight internet.

Another thing Qantas isn’t ready to discuss is pricing for internet access. Its new A380s will include an “anytime” snackbar — much like the sandwich and juice cabinet in 7-11 — where even lowly economy-class passengers will be able to help themselves at any time at no charge. But inflight internet is unlikely to be so … free.

A Qantas PR did let slip that the internet service is being provided by ONAIR, a joint venture between SITA (an avionic IT company) and Airbus. The CEO of ONAIR, George Cooper, said back in 2006 that he was working with a long-haul international carrier on inflight internet and that seat-back instant messaging would cost $5 for the duration of the flight and e-mail would cost $8 (with attachments costing extra).

While it’s certainly possible Cooper was referring to a different airline altogether, it could well be Qantas, and the componentised pricing, where you pay for the type of internet application you use, is quite interesting. It would certainly be easy for Joe Average to pick the access types from a seat-back touch-menu.

Meanwhile … back on the domestic routes… Unfortunately the most exciting news Qantas has for regular old domestic bunnyhops was that it is refreshing the seat fabric and colour scheme on domestic planes. No premium economy, no inflight internet, no power jacks apart from those that are already in business class. It is, however, going to be rolling out mobile telephony in its domestic planes, with a low-powered picocell in the plane’s roof relaying customers’ GSM signals to a groundstation by satellite.

This plan has already had a polarising effect on the community: the reaction seems to have been split between those that fear the combined effect of 140 commuters’ mobile phone babble and those that look forward to being able to receive e-mail on their Blackberry in-flight. I have to admit I fall into the latter camp — and besides, since each aircraft will be considered a different country and your phone will be on international roaming mode, I’m sure the costs Telstra and Qantas will charge will ensure in-flight babble is kept to a bare minimum.

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