BlackBerrys on a Plane

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Mark Lennihan / AP

Brad Garlinghous (left), senior vice president of Yahoo, aboard "BetaBlue," an Airbus A320 aircraft equipped with an onboard wireless network, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007.

As airlines charge passengers for services that were once complimentary — food, extra legroom in coach, even checking bags (thanks Spirit Airlines) — JetBlue is about to give us, for free, a brand new perk: e-mail, BlackBerry service and instant messaging from the air. Starting next Tuesday, Dec. 11, the "BetaBlue" Airbus A320 will be trying out the system on its runs between cities like New York and San Francisco for the next six months. It will then be rolled out system-wide.

JetBlue is not offering unfettered access to the Web — at least not yet — so no googling your in-flight neighbor. That would require a lot more bandwidth at a much higher cost. Instead, the service turns the plane into a flying Wi-Fi hot spot for mobile devices. When a plane reaches 10,000 feet, three WiFi access points hidden in the cabin's ceiling are activated, so that most wireless devices with Flash browsers or Wi-Fi-enabled laptops can connect to Yahoo Messenger or Mail, which can also be used to send text messages to mobile phones. (Sorry, Gmail and other e-mail services won't work.) BlackBerry handsets will also work just as they do on land. The radios onboard the plane monitor the 100 cell towers around the U.S., looking for the one with the strongest signal. As the plane flies, it leaves one cell tower and connects to another with a better signal. In theory, JetBlue could use the same technology to allow passengers to use their mobile phones in flight, but the airline has mercifully decided against it. (Not so in Europe, where regulators approved in-flight mobile service this summer.) "People don't want that," says JetBlue founder and chairman David Neeleman. "Half of them hating it is too big a risk."

Neeleman said he had been asking JetBlue's engineers about using his BlackBerry on their planes for years, thinking it should be pretty simple. Not only was connectivity more complicated than he thought, it was also extremely costly to create the software needed for full Web browsing. So instead, they came up with the idea of limited access for passengers, partnering with Yahoo and Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry. "If we just give people e-mail, that would solve 90% of the problem and would be one-tenth of the cost," Neeleman says. Full Web access would have been so expensive that the airline would have had to charge passengers to use it. "Nobody cares if it's not free," says Neeleman. "It's so irritating to go into a hot spot and have to pay." JetBlue and other airlines learned that lesson with seat-back phones. That service was discontinued because of lack of interest from passengers unwilling to pay several dollars for one in-flight phone call. The ground-to-air spectrum used for those in-flight calls came up for bid in July 2006, and JetBlue's subsidiary, LiveTV, purchased a slice from the Federal Communications Commissions to use for its Wi-Fi service. LiveTV will also offer the new service on its spectrum to other U.S. carriers.

So how well does the in-flight e-mail work? I went on a quick two-hour jaunt from New York City to Washington and back earlier this week to test out the new service and was impressed by the speed. My IMs and BlackBerry messages went through seamlessly to my colleagues even while I was zipping in the air. But we did run into dead spots. For about 15 minutes we were flying along the edge of a cell tower that did not have a strong enough signal to connect, so my e-mails sat in cyberspace limbo. Once the signal became strong enough, the mail went through. For trouble-shooting, don't expect flight attendants to turn into tech support. Dewayne Cook, one of the cheery staff on my test flight, referred me to the card in the seat pocket in front of me. "I think our customers are tech savvy enough," said Cook. Then again, such technical glitches every so often might not be a bad thing. It might just be our last refuge from e-mail at 35,000 feet.