Airport and internet – What’s the scoop?

Sometimes it’s a business essential, other times it’s great entertainment and sometimes it’s a strategy to keep the customers happy… On the go internet access . However, there’s still a lot of conflicting information out there and many people aren’t sure where and how they can get access — or how much it’s going to cost them.

At the airport — what’s available?

Chances are there’s wireless internet access somewhere in the airport if you’re travelling in a developed country or tourist area. It depends on the airport what’s available, but access can be offered in any of the following ways:

– The business centre: Wireless access and permanent public access computers may be available.

– The airline lounge: Many airlines have their own lounge at certain airports, but they may only be available for certain classes of fares. Internet access is usually free, but there’s sometimes a fee to use the lounge.

– Hotspots: Certain public areas may be set up with their own wireless network. Many airports charge for this service — you may have to set up an account with one of the airport’s providers and have your credit card handy. Paid internet access can cost as much as $10- $15 a day, but smaller blocks of time are also available and frequent travellers can pay for a monthly account.

– Kiosks and payphones. Some airports like Vancouver International Airport offer internet payphones (picture your typical payphone but with a bigger screen and small keyboard attached). You won’t need a computer, but expect to pay about 35 cents per minute for use.

Where can you find the latest information? Your best bet is to go directly to the airport’s website and look under the “services” section (usually under entertainment and technology or “Business services”). also has a list of airports offering wireless access and what they charge for the service.

Laptops and security — what’s new?

Taking your laptop through security often means you’ll have to take it out of your bag, and even turn it on in some cases, to show officials that you’re not hiding anything. However, new luggage on the market may change this procedure. Earlier this year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that’s it’s ready for check-point friendly computer bags. These bags have a separate compartment to hold the laptop, but they’re subject to other design restrictions like:

– They must be able to lie flat on the conveyer belt to go through the x-ray machine (don’t worry — this won’t harm your computer).

– No pockets, buckles, snaps or zippers can be on the laptop-only section of the case. (This can obstruct the view of the laptop).

– Nothing else can be packed in the laptop-only section: just the computer itself.

See the TSA press release for more information.

What’s the catch? According to travel export Chris Elliott, not all checkpoints will be equipped to deal with the new bags, and secondary screening may still be required if the x-ray can’t get a clear picture. (Elliott has a video demonstrating the new bags on his blog). There’s currently no word yet on how these bags will be received outside of the U.S.

On the plane — what’s allowed?

Can you use the internet or your cell phone/PDA on flights? That depends on the airline. Sometimes it’s a matter of service offerings rather than safety.

Cell phones: Do cell phone signals pose a threat to aviation? The research is still conflicting. While the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are considering making their ban on cell phone use on planes permanent, other countries are considering lifting or relaxing the rules. The European Union is looking at ways to allow passengers to safely make cell phone calls on board, and t he Australian Communication and Media Authority recently announced that it too is re-thinking its legislation based on recent research. Some airlines, like Dubai-based Emirates Airline, already allow cell phone calls on its flights.

It’s not clear when, where or how cell phone service will be allowed in Australia and Europe. While calls during take off and landing are universally banned, some airlines will have to prohibit cell phone calls while flying over certain countries. There may be “cell phone free” seating areas, and calls may be limited due to the strain on resources. Besides, many customers aren’t thrilled with the idea of noisy phone calls, especially on long-haul flights. It’s still a widely debated topic both in terms of safety and convenience.

For now, it’s probably best to assume that you won’t be able to use your cell phone on your flight. When in doubt, check with your airline.

Internet: Broadband access on airplanes isn’t new, but wireless may be finally starting to take off. For instance, Australian carrier Qantas introduced its wireless internet system in February of 2008, and American Airlines launched theirs in August 2008. It may take Delta as long as June 2009 to offer its service. Some airlines have already made deals with communications carriers which will be implemented over the next year or so, but some are a little slower to react.

Bad news for travel in Canada: neither WestJet nor Air Canada currently offers internet access on board. In fact, you’re left to your own devices when it comes to power — there are no hook-ups so you’ll be relying on batteries only.

But don’t expect the internet to allow you to circumvent the ban on cell phones. Voice Over IP (VoIP) services, particularly free ones like Skype, may be blocked or otherwise prohibited. Even if you can find a workaround, you’re neighbours likely won’t appreciate it.

On the bright side, laptops aren’t the only way you can take advantage of wireless: web-enabled phones and PDAs can also hook into the network, making email communication a convenient alternative to calls.

The news can be confusing, so check your airline’s website to find out what’s available (and allowed) on board.

What else should you know?

If you can access the internet in the airport or on your flight, there are a couple things to be aware of:

How to take advantage of the technology. You can use your phone, PDA and computer to make travel easier on yourself. For instance, you can “carry” your electronic boarding pass on your phone or PDA, and use the internet to check flight status and check in online.

Be aware that your neighbours are probably watching too. If you’ve ever sat on a plane near to someone watching a movie on a portable device, you know it’s hard not to look. The availability of pornography and violent content viewed on airplanes has already raised concerns, and some U.S. airlines such as Delta and American Airlines have already announced they will block internet porn on their flights. It’s probably best to avoid any viewing questionable content, including sensitive personal data or business documents.

Watch out for free wireless scams. If you’re looking for a free wireless hot-spot, beware! You might accidentally stumble into a scam wherein criminals set up their own ad-hoc networks. (In other words, you think you’re using the airport’s free service but you’ve actually connected to a mini-network that criminals set up). When you log in, they can infect your computer with malware and viruses, hack in and steal personal information (and your identity while they’re at it). Many people don’t realize these “evil twins” exist, or are dangerous. Scambusters warns people to only use official services being offered (for full details, see its feature “The Evil Twin”).

Surf safely. Public access computers (those found in airport lounges or internet cafes) also come with cautions. After all, you don’t know what security features they have or if they run anti-virus/anti-spyware software. These computers could be monitored by an outside source or contain key-stroke loggers or other harmful malware. Checking your email, tapping into a social networking site or (worse yet) using online banking websites could pose a risk. If you do use them, clear the browser’s cache and close all windows before you leave.

Always bring headphones. Regardless of what device you have, you’ll likely be required to use them to avoid disturbing other passengers. Bringing your own also means you can avoid a possible fee for those headphones available onboard.

Entertainment online — Where can you find it?

– iTunes. There’s plenty of free content like podcasts available, and you can rent movies to watch on your computer.

– Internet TV. Check out free episodes of your favourite shows from the original network’s website (like Grey’s Anatomy on If you’re travelling in the U.S., check out Hulu.

– Streaming video from news channels or your favourite website. Check out the World Wide Internet TV website for a list of channels available around the world.

– Online radio. (Hint, hint: Classical 96.3 and AM740 are both available online).

– If you forgot to pack a book, try the Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania. (Yes, the offerings include many popular novels).

So what’s in store for the future? No one is quite sure, but new technology is likely to become more main stream. There may not be a lot available right now, but look for that to change over the coming year.

Photo © Bart Sadowski


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