Now that it has become the first major airline to outfit its entire fleet with wireless Internet service, AirTran Airways is offering passengers a few do's and don't's.
Tip #134. "The lavatory is not your personal conference room."
The bathroom admonition is one of several included in the primer Internetiquette: A Guide to Keeping Everyone In Line, While They're Online that AirTran AAI will place in every seat pocket following its announcement Tuesday that the Internet is now accessible on each of its 136 planes.
With the smaller Virgin America reaching that milestone in May, and Delta, American and United moving quickly toward making all their domestic flights Internet-ready, travelers have entered the era of sky-high Wi-Fi. Now that passengers can connect to meetings, check e-mail and surf the Web in-flight, travel and etiquette experts say it wouldn't hurt for the flying public to get some guidance on how to behave.
"Any time we have a new way to spend time on an airplane ... it's a good idea to think about how it affects those around us," says Anna Post, an etiquette expert and spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute. "14B is not your office. It's an airline seat. Treat it as such."
In the midst of an economic downturn that has caused the airline industry to lose passengers and revenue, carriers view Wi-Fi as a perk that can help entice business fliers and others back on board.
Delta, which merged with Northwest last year, has already outfitted 199 of its planes, with the rest of its domestic mainline aircraft scheduled to be Internet-ready by the end of this year. Northwest's fleet will be ready in the last six months of 2010.
American, aiming to have Internet access on roughly 300 of its domestic aircraft, has equipped 70 so far and plans for the rest to be completed some time next year.
"Over time, we think this will serve us very, very well," says Bob Fornaro, chairman and president of AirTran. He adds that with the Internetiquette guides, part of a broad advertising campaign spanning TV, radio and billboards, "we're trying to remind you in a fun way that you're not at home" when surfing the Web at 35,000 feet.
Advantage to privacy screens
AirTran and other carriers adding Wi-Fi have made a point of blocking Internet phone calls via Skype and other services.
But "sound, paperwork, (and) confidentiality" remain concerns as business travelers take part in webcast meetings, says Jackie Yeaney, chief marketing officer of Premiere Global Services, which specializes in conference-call technology. "I can imagine it getting out of control."
Instead of having reams of paper spilling into your neighbor's lap as you take notes, Yeaney suggests using a Web conference feature that allows note-taking on the computer instead.
Passengers can "have a couple different windows" open, she says, "so they can have the information they need on the screen, not on the paper next to them."
Though they can't phone in, she says, business travelers could use instant messaging to actively participate in a meeting. They could even use "emoticons" such as a smiley face, to indicate that they like an idea, or polling features that allow them to type questions and receive answers.
Yeaney warns that travelers conducting business via the Internet have to be mindful of seatmates getting an eyeful of proprietary information. She suggests they use privacy screens that snap onto their computers and prevent others from seeing what's displayed.
"Wi-Fi access is just one more step that means people can get more productive," Yeaney says, recalling how business travelers once had to jockey for a pay phone to take part in meetings while on the road or seek out wireless connections in coffee shops. "They'll need to be careful about how they conduct that business, but that's been true as each of these changes has happened over the years."
Sam Kings, 28, who flies a few times a year, thinks airline Wi-Fi is a good thing. "It would be nice for the long flights," he said on Monday, as he dropped off a friend bound for Hong Kong at New York's JFK. "If it doesn't affect (flight) communication and safety, it's good."
Post, herself a frequent traveler, says she, too, is all for progress. But in certain situations, patience and manners will only go so far.
"I'm praying cellphones don't get approved," she says. "It will be anarchy."
Contributing: Taylor McGraw