The prospect of having broadband while flying at 35,000 feet is enough to get most of us geeks a-twitter. We'd want it to be safe, of course, but frankly we're a little tired of the arguments against unencumbered in-flight WiFi that center on so-called 'Net etiquette. An AP report today recounts the objections of some travelers and airlines alike to in-flight WiFi, and they pull out the usual ghosts and goblins: armies of loud VoIP users, people "flaming" each other on planes (oh please), and guys who just can't stop looking at porn. These Chicken Little scenarios are tiresome and not supported by the evidence, yet they are being used by many airlines to justify blocking and filtering in-flight broadband. Some airlines will filter VoIP packets, others will use blacklists to block access to sites. (And meanwhile, people are still bringing "carry-ons" onto the plane that are two-times too large.)
We only need to look at current parallels to see that those fears have little basis in reality. Consider the porn fear. Laptops on airplanes aren't exactly a new phenomenon—people have been taking them out to catch up on work, watch movies, play games, and otherwise screw around regularly for over a decade now. How often do we see someone on a plane pulling up and browsing his porn collection? Not very often (I, personally, have never seen such a thing). This nonexistent problem isn't going to be exacerbated by the presence of an Internet connection.
Another major concern appears to revolve around passengers making regular—and loud—phone calls through VoIP software like Skype. Although many airlines have offered those seat-back, in-flight phones for some time now, few people actually use them due to the high cost associated with them. Or do those passengers also avoid them because, well, no one wants to make a phone call while on a plane? It could be a mixture of both—I know that I'm not all that tempted to make phone calls while in-flight, except maybe to tell someone that I'll be late. Still, for those who do want to make calls, flights are loud and people are already chatting with each other. A few more people chatting into a headset instead of the child next to them isn't going to make much of a difference that can't be blocked out by a decent set of headphones.
Nevertheless, some airlines are planning on blocking users from receiving calls in-flight, while others want to block VoIP entirely. Strangely, these fears didn't stop the airlines from trying to make money off of their proprietary phone services.
The AP brings up a few other concerns—what if the person in front of you wants to recline! Or, *gasp* what if the person next to you keeps peering over to see what you're doing? Again, these are problems that people already have while using laptops on airplanes. Sure, it's annoying, but certainly not worth banning or restricting in-flight broadband.
We could go on and on, but just consider a parallel example that has essentially changed our casual laptop travels overnight: the coffee house. Freely-available WiFi, combined with still-falling laptop prices, have caused the presence of laptop-users in coffee houses to explode over the last five years. At the right time of day, Panera and Starbucks look more like offices than restaurants or cafes.
The coffee house laptop crowd consists of all types, too. Gamers, business people, students… all people who would rather just do their thing than disrupt everyone with blaring porn or a loud Skype session. In fact, the presence of laptop users have brought an eerie silence to coffee houses—the last time I was at a Starbucks (armed with my MacBook and some headphones, of course), it struck me how oddly quiet everything really was, aside from the cheesy store music and the whir of the baristas doing their thing. People are generally very sensitive to those around them and tend to avoid viewing anything that might offend someone walking by, too. Something tells me that in-flight broadband will yield largely the same results.
Thankfully, some seem to realize the same thing. "We think decency and good sense and normal behavior" will prevail when it comes to in-flight 'Net etiquette, Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein told the AP. "I'd rather have the responsibility in the hands of passengers and require them to be accountable for what they do on laptops and airplanes," Harvard Law School professor John Palfrey added.
We tend to agree. Bring on the in-flight broadband and let the complainers take the bus.