Originally published in the New Zealand Herald Travel

Tim McCready on the joys — and threats — of constant connection

To me, one of the biggest joys of travel, especially when on board NZ2 to London, is the thought that for 24-odd hours you’re not contactable and you are answerable to no one. Dead to the world.

Flying means time to watch back-to-back movies, read a book — maybe do a little work — and try to sleep.

In this hyper-connected era, it is near impossible to disconnect from the internet for even a few hours. The ability to shut off, disconnect, and have guilt-free time to yourself is an increasingly rare gift.

But as on-board Wi-Fi becomes commonplace, that cordon sanitaire is rapidly disappearing.

Some American airlines have been offering their passengers inflight internet for more than a decade.

The recent Inflight Connectivity Survey reported more than half of passengers (55 per cent) describe inflight Wi-Fi as crucial. Globally, passengers ranked inflight Wi-Fi as the fourth most important factor that they consider when choosing an airline, behind airline reputation, free checked baggage and extra legroom.

Even 53 per cent of respondents said they would be prepared to give up inflight alcohol in exchange for access to Wi-Fi. Think about that for a moment.

Air New Zealand says Wi-Fi is now available on its 777-300 and 777-200 fleets, with more 777 aircraft becoming Wi-Fi enabled throughout 2019 and 2020. All its new Airbus A321neos and A320neos are delivered with the technology already installed, and the airline says it will start on its 787 fleet later this year. What’s more, it is being offered to passengers free of charge on all enabled aircraft flying internationally.

But at what cost? And I don’t mean to the airline.

Take the flight I’m on right now: an evening flight from Auckland to Melbourne on one of Air New Zealand’s brand-new Airbus A321neos.

Settling in to watch a movie, I found myself messaging friends:

“Not sure whether to choose the Mexican chipotle chicken or the beef rendang?”

Bohemian Rhapsody — any good?”

During the movie (I’d give it four out of five stars) I stayed connected; answered a few emails. Replied to responses to those emails. Sent pictures of the chipotle chicken to my family. Tweeted.

And it isn’t just me — as I look around the dark cabin, almost everyone on board has their face illuminated in a blue glow by their phones.

Of course, I realise that I am entirely to blame. I could have chosen to leave my phone on flight mode. But that’s a much harder ask when Wi-Fi is readily available — at no cost. Air travel is suddenly unlocking hours of previously unutilised productivity for businesses. That old excuse for being uncontactable will soon be gone forever as colleagues and clients start to realise a long-haul flight only makes you more available, not less.

I am entirely aware that this position makes me sound like a technology grinch, which is unfair. I can’t deny this is a technological marvel: data is travelling from my device to an antenna on top of the Airbus, up to a satellite, down to earth, back to the satellite and then returns to my plane. Air New Zealand says on an aircraft travelling more than 800k p/h, by the time your data gets back to your device, you will have travelled the length of about five rugby fields.

Running a speed test mid-flight I clocked speeds of 5.0 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1.4Mbps upload. Although those speeds will struggle with high-resolution video, it is impressive when you consider you’re at 35,000 feet and halfway across the Tasman. I am sure soon we will all wonder how we survived so long without it.

But you also can’t deny it’s the end of that last refuge. And as for whether you’d be willing to trade your gin and tonic in order to stay connected…