WiFi Capabilities Aside, Don't Plan on Skyping From the Sky Anytime Soon

We may be technologically capable of broad in-flight connectivity. The question is whether we want to take advantage of it.
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Here is a phrase that you may no longer be hearing on airplanes: "Please power down your electronic devices for takeoff."

For most harried air travelers, good riddance. The need to turn off one's laptop or tablet or what have you during takeoff may be an annoyance that fits squarely into the category of "problems that are not actually problems at all"; yet the rule, for all its in-the-scheme-of-things smallness, has become a kind of symbol for an industry's impulse to make air travel as annoying as possible for the fortunate slice of the population that has access to it. A few minutes of government-mandated SkyMall perusal may be far from the worst thing in the world; as part of a broader experience of air travel, though, it is a slight indignation that can take on the weight of indignity.

Here's the thing, though. If the FAA changes its rules when it comes to electronics usage, that will raise a challenge that's less about safety and more about common courtesy. And it's one that airlines -- businesses that straddle the line between the transportation and service industries -- will have to negotiate. At a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival today, The New York Times's Andrew Ross Sorkin asked Jeff Smisek, the president and CEO of United Airlines, about plane-borne communication as a general likelihood. "When I use my cell phone on the plane," Sorkin asked, "does it really create a problem? You guys now have Internet on the plane. So I don't really understand."

First and foremost, "we obey the law," Smisek said -- despite the fact that the electronics-during-takeoff-and-landing ban, at least, is likely overly cautious when it comes to safety. (If the devices posed a true danger, Smisek said, given the number of people who break the rule and use them, "you'd have airplanes falling out of the sky every day.") And when it comes to devices' takeoff/landing window, "I think we'll have reform," Smisek noted.

The broader question, though, is the extent to which loosened electronics restrictions -- the takeoff-and-landing-based ones the FAA is considering, and the broader affordances Sorkin was referring to -- will become a slippery slope for onboard communications. "We're putting satellite-based wifi on our entire fleet," Smisek noted, "so you can you run but you can't hide anymore." Soon, customers will likely have access to the streaming video that will allow them to Netflix and Hulu and YouTube from the air. But that will bring with it a range of new problems -- problems when it comes to plane culture. (And to, you might say, Sky Law.)

"There will be issues, for example, with VOIP," Smisek said -- "because you could be stuck next to someone who's arguing with his or her girlfriend or boyfriend for four hours. And what's that going to be like?"

Spoiler: It is going to be terrible. So "we're going to actively discourage people from doing that," Smisek said. "We're going to basically have an onboard rule" saying that you can't Skype from the skies.

"So," Sorkin said, "you will be able to Skype, technically -- but you can't really Skype."

That seems to be the vision: technological capability, mitigated by enforced human courtesy. "The same flight attendant that asked you to turn your cell phone off," Smisek said, "will also tell you to stop Skyping, because the passenger next to you is getting really annoyed."

You may also find yourself on the receiving end of regulation of a more traditional variety. If you decide to engage in some sky-Skyping, Smisek said, "that passenger next to you may just reach over and break your machine."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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