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Etiquette questions arise as airlines introduce in flight Internet access

Dec. 28, 2007, New York - Seat 17D is yapping endlessly on an Internet phone call. Seat 16F is flaming Seat 16D with expletive-laden chats...


December 28, 2007
By Anick Jesdanun

Dec. 28, 2007, New York – Seat 17D is yapping endlessly on an Internet phone
call. Seat 16F is flaming Seat 16D with expletive-laden chats. Seat
16E is too busy surfing porn sites to care. Seat 17C just wants to
sleep.

Welcome to the promise of the Internet at 10,000 metres _ and the
questions of etiquette, openness and free speech that airlines and
service providers will have to grapple with as they bring Internet
access to the skies in the coming months.

“This gets into a ticklish area,'' said Vint Cerf, one of the
Internet's chief inventors and generally a critic of network
restrictions. “Airlines have to be sensitive to the fact that
customers are (seated) close together and may be able to see each
other's PC screens. More to the point, young people are often aboard
the plane.''

Technology providers and airlines are already making decisions.
Some will block services like Internet phone calls altogether while
others will put limits and install filters on content. And traffic
management tools that are frowned upon on terra firma could be
commonplace in the air.

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Panasonic Avionics Corp., a Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.
unit testing airborne services on Australia's Qantas Airways Ltd.,
is designing its high-speed Internet services to block sites on “an
objectionable list,'' including porn and violence, said David
Bruner, executive director for corporate sales and marketing.

He said airlines based in more restrictive countries could choose
to expand the list.

The company also is recommending that airlines permit
Internet-based phone calls only on handsets with wireless Wi-Fi
capabilities _ the technology delivering access within the passenger
cabin. Bruner said the company believes Wi-Fi handsets use less
bandwidth than telephone software that runs on laptops.

Airlines, he said, also could block incoming calls _ and the
annoying ring tones they produce _ or designate periods of quiet
time.

OnAir, which has European certification for airborne cellular
services, plans to give airlines similar choices, chief executive
Benoit Debains said. Although some airlines are concerned about
noise, Debains said, enabling voice would generate more revenue than
data-only services.

Air France, which plans to start allowing cellular calls through
OnAir within months, said it would see how people use such services
before crafting rules.

“Are you going to reach your wife to tell her what you did the
entire day or just tell her, `Can you pick me up at the airport?' ''
Air France spokeswoman Marina Tymen said, adding that passengers
might tell the airline that data services fulfil all their needs.

U.S. airlines are largely taking the opposite approach.

With possible exceptions for crew and federal air marshals,
flights on AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and Alaska Air Group Inc.'s
Alaska Airlines won't have access to Internet-based phone services
like EBay Inc.'s Skype.

Discount startup Virgin America is also considering a ban.

“An airborne environment is a confined environment,'' said
Charles Ogilvie, Virgin's director of in-flight entertainment and
partnerships. “You don't want 22B yapping away or playing on a boom
box.''

Airlines have offered in-flight phone services before, but their
high costs have limited their popularity. By contrast, Internet
phone calls are free or cheap, particularly for passengers already
paying for in-flight access to check e-mail or surf websites.

Meanwhile, American, Alaska and Virgin have no plans to filter
sites based on their content. At most, an airline may manage traffic
and delay large downloads, or in Virgin's case give passengers the
option of enabling controls for their kids.

“We think decency and good sense and normal behaviour'' will
prevail, said Jack Blumenstein, chief executive of Aircell LLC,
which is launching service on some American and Virgin flights in
2008.

Alaska, which plans to start offering service on some flights in
the spring, said the same guidelines apply whether a passenger is
flipping through a magazine, watching a DVD on a laptop or surfing
the Web.

“Occasionally we do have conversations with customers about
content,'' Alaska spokeswoman Amanda Tobin Bielawski said.

In many ways, airlines are facing issues similar to those
encountered by Wi-Fi networks on the ground _ at airports, coffee
shops and other public places.

Glenn Fleishman, editor of the Wi-Fi Networking News site, said
operators of public networks generally do not filter because users
are conscious that others can see what they surf. A coffee shop
employee might occasionally ask a customer to leave, Fleishman said,
“but those stories tend to be pretty far between.''

Airplanes, however, are different because customers are in closer
quarters and are more likely to include kids.

Allowing porn could subject an airline to harassment complaints
much like an employer that refuses to clamp down, said John Palfrey,
a Harvard Law School professor.

“I think they have a right to (filter), but I come up short of
saying they have the responsibility,'' Palfrey said. “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.''

Airborne Internet activities _ such as hacking and piracy _ could
raise new questions about which country's laws apply.

The in-flight services also could exacerbate long-standing
grievances.

What if the passenger in front of you wants to recline, making it
difficult to surf comfortably on your laptop? What if you're
finishing a crucial e-mail on deadline and an adjacent passenger
needs to leave for the bathroom? What if the person next to you
keeps peering over while you're trying to review a confidential
website?

Steve Jones, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who
specializes in Internet studies, said passengers and flight crews
would need to undergo “the kinds of learning the ropes and learning
the etiquette anytime we put new technology in new settings.''

Just as most people have come to set boundaries for cell phone
use in public settings, he said, “we will see develop social norms
for using the Internet in flight.''

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS