Nowhere to hide thanks to wi-fi in the sky



There is nowhere left to hide. That priceless blessing and evil scourge of the 21st century, the internet, has now reached the sky.

In-flight wi-fi image: Anthony Quintano via FlickrI'm on a flight from Sydney and am sitting next to an Australian woman returning to her parents' homeland in Europe to visit family. She's terrified of flying, she tells me. I comfort her — I am used to holding the hands of people on planes who fear they are about to die. I ask her about her heritage and about her parents' country of birth. I try to distract her from the jet-scream rising beside us as engines race and air whooshes and we're lifted up into the sky. She stares terror-eyed and disconsolate out of the window. She's left her boyfriend down there.

But wait! She's brought him up here with her, too!

We're still strapped into our seats and bulleting into the ether when she grabs her mobile phone from her handbag and dials his number on Facetime. But the call won't connect. She punches the phone frantically, becoming more distressed as the plane approaches altitude.

'The only reason I booked a flight on this airline,' she wails 'is because they have wi-fi!' I had no idea. It's the beginning of 2018 and though I've heard of on-board wi-fi, I've never before encountered it. Could it be a thing?

As 2018 rumbles on, I discover that it most certainly is: airlines like Qantas, Virgin, Delta and Emirates announce that they're rolling out wi-fi on certain flights, and testing it on others. Some flights offer limited data free of charge, while others attach hefty price tags to their service. Wise airlines (unlike this wretched carrier) allow streaming while denying access to Skype and Facetime. Months later, I find myself trying out the complimentary service on a different flight (for research purposes, of course). It's like wi-fi in the 1990s: patchy and unreliable.

But who wants wi-fi up in the air anyway? Until the recent arrival of in-flight internet connectivity, flights presented one with a rare opportunity to momentarily escape real life and forget it ever existed.


"The work-a-day world is threatening to intrude even as we board the plane: 'urgent' emails will ping into our inboxes; news headlines will scream for attention; children will message asking where their tennis shoes are."


Boarding the plane, I would shrug off the troubles that grounded me to the material world and wait for that peculiar sense of airborne placidity to wash over me. I settled down to reading or writing or (occasionally) watching movies or — that most invaluable of pastimes — sitting back and being alone with my thoughts. This, after all, is the reward for a long and uncomfortable flight: precious time.

Now the work-a-day world is threatening to seamlessly intrude on our lives even as we board the plane: 'urgent' emails will ping into our inboxes; news headlines will scream for attention; children will message asking where their tennis shoes are. And fellow passengers will grow loud in their demands to be swiftly connected to the outside world.

Back on the Europe-bound flight, my neighbour summons a flight attendant to assist with her technical woes. Heads gather above the screen, brows furrow, settings are opened and codes entered. But still the woman can't connect. She demands the flight attendant do something. But the flight attendant has a planeload of passengers to attend to, and mealtime is upon her. She leaves the woman with some suggestions on waiting for a while and trying to join the network once a stronger connection has been established.

I'm momentarily relieved when at last the woman's phone warbles to life with the voice of her boyfriend. His face, distorted at first, takes on a human shape on her screen. I settle back in my seat, finally able to let her be.

But I can't concentrate on my book with all the chit-chat going on beside me. The woman is conversing with her boyfriend in their shared European dialect, showing him the selection of movies on her screen, giving him a look around the cabin, apprising him of the meal that has now landed on her tray. When I finally pull down my eye mask several hours later, the public-private tête-à-tête is still going on.

I awake to a cabin shrouded in darkness and quiet. The woman is asleep beside me. But now she is stirring. She rubs her eyes, reaches for her phone. Somewhere high above the Arabian Sea, her boyfriend's face materialises in the gloom.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Main image: Anthony Quintano via Flickr

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, wi-fi, Qantas, Virgin, travel



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Existing comments

I've just returned from a trip to Europe so long-haul flights were involved as well as a boat cruise around the bewitching Mediterranean Sea. As a traveller with a fear of flying, I spend most of my airborne time sleeping. I also read. I do not access the internet or watch movies, as many of my fellow passengers do. Holidays should involve a different focus, namely, enjoying new surroundings and new people. On the boat I spent quite a bit of time in the library where the entrance sign reads: "Silence. This is a quiet area." My refuge.

Pam | 01 July 2018  

Immediacy of connection is a virtue. It must because omnipresence, a divine attribute, is universal immediacy of connection.

Roy Chen Yee | 08 July 2018  

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