Something worrying is happening on airplanes across the world.
It happened on an Emirates flight I was on last month. Paul, not finding the multitude of movies, TV shows, games and radio stations on the in flight entertainment system enough to keep him occupied, decided to check if the onboard Wi-Fi was working. It was – and it was free for up to 20MB. He put his phone at the window, snapped a pic of the airplane wing above the the mountains of Iran, and uploaded the photo to Facebook with the caption “First time using in-air Wi-Fi. Flying over Iran.” The photo received 14 likes (quite a lot for him).
His free Wi-Fi allocation had been used up before he got the chance to do anything else. But a precedent is being set. Earlier this year, JetBlue became the first airline to offer free Wi-Fi on all its flights. Norwegian Air offer free Wi-Fi on most of their flights. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways have recently made a big deal of their on flight Wi-Fi upgrades. Most of the big airlines offer some variation of Wi-Fi, either charging to use or free up to a point. But the way things are going, I wonder if it will soon be the norm for all airlines to offer free Wi-Fi for the entire journey.
Which worries me.
An airplane is a rare entity in the world. From the moment it lifts off from the runway and the earth can only been seen from a distance through the small circular window, it becomes a place with no internet access. For the duration of your flight you are forced to relax. You are forced to read a book, watch a film, listen to music, do a crossword, or listen to a podcast. To do things that don’t involve being online.
Reading a book with a glass of wine on a plane is one of my small life pleasures. It is a part of my travel experiences I look forward to as much as anything else (and scouring Kindle samples to compile my inflight reading list a preflight ritual I always consume with glee). How often do you get the opportunity to sit for hours uninterrupted with a glass of wine reading a book or watching a film? (I realise readers with young children will be having a very different flight experience right now – I feel for you!) In your spare time there is always something to do and the internet is usually the means by which to do it. For me this is a blog to write, an Etsy shop to update, and a Facebook/Instagram/Twitter feed to needlessly scroll. In a world of information abundance and instantaneous connectivity, an airplane is the only time you are forcibly shut off.
Remember when you went on holiday as a kid and had to wait for the British newspapers to be delivered to find out what was going on back home? Paul remembers waiting for days to find out the football results – unthinkable now. The internet has allowed the world to become connected – 100% a good thing. But airplanes are the last bastion left where you are blissfully unaware of what’s going on below.
I recently read a hysterical millennial written article demanding Wi-Fi on airplanes which cited a UN statement advising that internet access should be a human right. Somehow I think when the UN made this point they were referencing displaced people in refugee camps trying to contact their families and those living under a totalitarian regime unable to access the outside world. Folk flying from Wi-fi zone to Wi-fi zone on holiday or a business trip without access to it for a few hours probably wasn’t on the list of their top concerns.
To make it clear, I’m not anti tech. I think the internet has brought a million times more benefits than downsides. But I see being on an airplane flight as a short, imposed detox. I once heard a smartphone being described as an “adult pacifier” which I thought was so apt. Knowing you can’t get online stops you from instinctively reaching for your phone.
There’s a practical element too. The Transport Department of the USA recently raised the issue of the use of Wi-Fi calls, i.e. Skype and Facetime being used on planes now that Wi-Fi is becoming regularly available inflight. The request for comments provoked a furious reaction from thousands. This is understandable: who wants to be elbow to elbow with someone chatting noisily on Skype for hours? Can you imagine a plane full of people doing this? Awful.
I’m not calling for Wi-Fi to not be installed on planes because I don’t want others to use it. I’m calling for no Wi-Fi on planes because I know I will use it. I’ll scroll Twitter and Instagram feeds. I’ll read each live news update. Sadly, I probably will update my Instagram story and check into “On the plane – currently flying over Iran” on Facebook. I’ll think since I have a few hours with nothing else to do, I might as well work on my Etsy shop. And that few hours of peace away from the outside world and another film or book I’ve been meaning to watch but will never get round to will slip away.
Oh well, at least we can rely on Ryanair (a phrase you don’t often hear uttered). Company chief Michael O’Leary has completely ruled out introducing Wi-Fi on Ryanair flights, saying it has “no revenue upside.” Will my distaste for inflight Wi-fi lead me to only fly on planes without it? Of course, not. But (while online scrolling and posting) I’ll still mourn that sanctuary the internet once couldn’t reach.