By Perry Wu
United Airlines have recently been plugging their high-tech services for travelers–available in both United First and United Business on the majority of their international routes. With the intensity of the Chinese New Year travel season one week away, it was with some anticipation that The Wired Traveler began his evaluation: were United up to scratch?
First, let's get the basic details out of the way. This review is based primarily on the first leg of a flight from Beijing to Chicago, in other words, the Beijing-Tokyo leg. I saw no major differences between the first and second legs, but will confess to being pretty exhausted and sleeping for a lot of the second flight. We flew on a Boeing 777 as far as Japan, then switched to a Boeing 747-400 for the flight to the US–all services mentioned below are available in the First and Business sections of both aircraft. I am informed by United that these features are also available on the Boeing 767-300s, with existing B757s and A320's currently undergoing system upgrades. My trip took place in the Winter of 2003/2004.
My Business Class seat was initially a bit awe-inspiring, and I have to confess to spending a good half an hour trying to find out what exactly that chair could and couldn't do–the final tally was that while it might not have been able to reverse the aging process, it certainly did help my chronic backache (a first for a commercial airline).
It took me a bit longer to locate the port to charge up my laptop's battery, and a few minutes more to untangle all my cables, but plugging in was a piece of cake and the power supply was steady. Now, there has been quite a bit of publicity about United's decision to require all laptops to recharge via an iGO Corp "Juice" Power Cord–a special power adapter that is able to connect you notebook to any power source (domestic, automobile, or airborne) while simultaneously charging either a mobile phone or a handheld device. The Wired Traveler had, of course, done his research and brought one of the Juice cords with him, however in any case the flight staff all seemed very clued-up on the technical requirements for charging a computer in-flight, and they informed me that passengers could purchase Juice cords from Duty Free on pretty much all international Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic flights.
Some carriers like ANA can handle normal power adapters, so I can understand some people's hesitation to use Juice, as it does demand an initial outlay of cash. But I am now attached to my Juice and it works well. I may use it only occasionally on flights (hey, I don't get out that much) but it has proved invaluable in hotels and while in transit around the globe, for all those times when you find that all your electronics are out of power, or when your particular plug just isn't getting into that foreign socket. My advice: spend the money as much for the peace of mind as for the convenience.
So, I had my Juice, and I had my laptop, plugged in and ready to go. I also had a very nice gin and tonic, but I wasn't touching that just yet. The next challenge was getting online.
For the majority of travelers, the idea of phone calls, be they voice or data, in mid air is still something mainly found in the movies. We've all seen the phone handsets nearby, but with the assumed prohibitive costs, and the warnings that mobile phones used in-flight can cause interference with the guidance systems (a completely different kettle of fish, guys, believe me) these handy little tools don't get much publicity.
Okay, sure, making a phone call from an airplane flying at god-knows what altitude over the middle of nowhere is not as cheap as dialing up at home. Yes, you'll probably need a credit/bank-card. But is it prohibitively expensive? Wellï¿½ï¿½ probably not, and it can make a real difference. Currently, the majority of business travelers synch their emails (while I sink all the spam I receive) in the airport lounge while waiting for their flights, then they get their work done on the plane and re-synch back in the airport upon landing to send out their mail and receive any new messages. This is fine for the everyday traveler and those on non-urgent flights, but even though the world is getting smaller, many flights still take upwards of nine or ten hours, and in a crisis situation, that is too long to be out of touch.
I got online via Verizon's Airfone Service, plugging my laptop's phone cord into the base of the Airfone handset through an RJ-11 jack (standard telephone jack). It only took a few minutes to get up and running, following the straightforward instructions on the handset screen, and there I was, surfing at 9600bps–not breakneck speed, but good enough considering I was traveling 850 kilometers per hour at a height of 38,000 feet. I did this a couple of times through the flight, never online for more than about ten minutes, and it enabled me to send out a variety of messages, something that other travelers would have had to wait hours for. I didn't have a business on the brink of liquidation and I wasn't facing hostile takeover, and there wasn't even a major PR disaster taking place, but a lot of people do face these unfortunate situations and, at times like that, being able to go online while in-flight is a godsend. And United have it all set up so smoothly that you'll miss that kind of service back on the ground.
Is there a future for in-flight voice and data calls? Probably, but don't expect to be able to plug your computer in via the RJ-45 (Ethernet) port any time soon (if at all). The additional weight of adding a bunch of internet routers and a huge bundle of cat-5 cable to an aircraft even the size of a Boeing-777 makes doing regular Ethernet an unwise move. However, several European and American airline companies are skipping that idea altogether and experimenting with Wi-Fi instead. Hooking up a couple of wireless access points makes a lot more sense, and FAA approval is pending as I write this.
Overall, The Wired Traveler gives United high marks for their services offered. They've taken the technology available to a high level and handle it with professionalism and smooth service. As for Juice, I'm guessing that time will tell on that one.
About the author:
Perry Wu is a writer and correspondent for ChinaTechNews.com and can be reached here at the site. Perry Wu does not hold any positions, long or short, on any of the Chinese or American company securities mentioned in this article.