I’m not exactly a corporate jet setter (although the past couple months would attest otherwise) but I’ve see the inside of a plane enough times to know the law of the land. For me I spend the majority of my time buried in a book, right now its the Wheel of Time series, as I don’t really get a chance to read for pleasure at any other time. For long haul flights I’ll usually have my laptop in tow as well although lately I’ve left that in the checked baggage, mostly because the in flight entertainment systems have gotten a lot better. Still I’ve had the pleasure of being on some flights that offer in flight wireless and whilst its usability was on the low side it was an apt demonstration of how far aviation technology has come, and where it was heading.
Rewind back a decade or so and the idea of allowing radio transmitting devices to operate on flights was akin to wanting to make the plane crash. The stance of the various aviation bodies was easy to understand however: they were simply unable to test all of the available transmitting devices with their aircraft to ensure that no interference was possible and thus had to ban them all outright. Their relenting on wireless networking was due in a large part to the rigorous specifications of 802.11a/g/n which include transmission power limits as well as their frequencies being well outside of any that aircraft use for necessary functions. Of course not every device strictly adheres to it but there’s little to be gained from juicing up the power levels on your wireless, especially if it’s running on a battery.
However the use of these systems is usually restricted to after take off through until the plane is making its final approaches for landing. Whilst I’ve heard a lot of people say that this was due to the interference I thought the reasoning was far more simple, it was to keep you aware during the most risky points of flight: take off and landing. Of course my theory falls apart in the face of reality as I’ve not once been told to put my book away during these times, even when they’re doing the safety demonstration, but have been told on numerous occasions that my laptop should be put away until I’m told it’s allowed again.
Recent announcements from the Federal Aviation Authority in the USA however show that the rules against electronic devices are slowly being changed to allow more broad use cases with them now allowing use of electronic devices during take off and landing. They’re still limiting the use of wireless to the in flight system (although whether the 10,000ft restriction is still in effect isn’t something I could ascertain) and about and the outright band on all other transmission devices remains in effect. It might surprise you to find out that I actually agree with the latter restriction but not for the sake of the airlines however, it’s for those poor cell towers.
You see when you’re on the ground your mobile phone has a finite transmission range that’s limited primarily by the numerous things that get in the signals way as it travels from the cell tower to you. As a consequence of this you’re likely only ever hitting a handful of different towers, something which they deal with easily through hand-offs between each other. However when you’re in a plane those obstructions are no longer in your way and suddenly you’re effectively able to hit dozens of towers all at the same time. This, in effect, is like a small denial of service attack and they’re simply not designed to handle it. The best way to combat this would be to use some form of picocell on the plane itself, something which I had heard was in development a long time ago but can’t find any links to support now. Still for the short term this is unlikely to change unless the telecommunications companies think its worth their while to support it and the FAA agrees to change the rules.
Personally though I’m far more interested in technology that makes those in flight wireless systems more usuable like the new Ground to Orbit systems that GoGo wireless has been testing. Whilst the current 10Mbps of bandwidth might be enough for the odd Tweet or Facebook post it’s rarely usable for anything else, especially when there’s a few people online at the same time. Of course some also take solace in the fact that they’re incommunicado for the duration of the flight, something which I don’t quite mind myself.
There was a sound at the edge of my hearing, familiar yet I couldn’t quite place it. The harder I concentrated on it the more I realised it was my alarm going off which sounded like one of those alarms they use in movies for when there’s an emergency. We had an early start today as we had a plane to catch at 11:20 and didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Still it was slow going getting everything ready for our short trip over the border to the United states, our bodies not wanting to leave the sanctuary that we’d become accustomed to. We made our way there, returning the rental car and making our way to the check-in desk.
The airport was strangely deserted with only a handful of other passengers milling around. Still it took us well over an hour to get ourselves through all the checkpoints leaving us only 5 minutes to spare before the plane was scheduled to board. The plane was an interesting one being quite small (I couldn’t fully stand up in it) with only 2 rows of 2 seats but it was also a jet. Anyone who’s flown from Canberra to Sydney would know that most of the time you’re going to be flying on a turboprop plane like a Dash-8 but this was a CRJ 900. With only 80 or so seats in the craft I figured that they could be taking in, at most, $8,000 per flight which wouldn’t leave a lot of room for profit on these short hop flights. Still when we landed I saw at least another 2 of these craft decked out in the Delta colours so there must be something I’m missing here. The flight was impressively quick and smooth so I’m definitely not complaining.
Arrival at JFK brought back memories of returning home to Canberra as we were lead out onto the tarmac into a makeshift shelter. I’m guessing it was just for the short hop flights as I could see a flock of aircraft off in the distance. Finding our luggage was painless, as was getting transport into the city. No sooner had we been standing idly by the nearest road than we were offered a taxi with a flat fare into Manhattan Island. The taxi itself was pretty impressive too as it had a monitor embedded in the front seat showing the fare, live map as well as other information. We had a good fiddle with it until we hit the city line, after which we just stared slack jawed out the window at what was surrounding us.
Block by block it wasn’t really that much different than any other big city I’ve been in, with stores at the street level and high rise buildings closing around you. What impressed me though was the sheer scale of the city itself where most would have just a few blocks of high rise New York’s stretches almost as far as you can see in each direction. It took us a good 15 minutes to get to our hotel but thankfully we were able to pull up right out the front. We’d arrived early for our check-in but the room was ready for us anyway so we dumped our things and set about wandering around the nearby area. We saw shops of all kinds, street peddlers hocking all sorts of random items and being accosted no less than 10 times by people trying to get us to go to a comedy club or some other event. Rebecca wanted to check out the central park so we headed over there. It was a remarkable place to have in one of the biggest cities in the world but with my foot playing up again we cut our jaunt there short and headed back to find some dinner.
After scouring Yelp for some place cheap and delicious I came across the Tri Tip Grill, a little food joint inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza. After getting lost trying to find it we eventually tracked it down and ordered ourselves a couple sandwiches. What got me was the glass coke bottles with non-twist tops on them, which I just had to try. The food was great, even more so considering the price. Satisfied we started to amble our way back to the hotel picking up a cup of pretzel pieces to snack on. Once we were back home I started looking for places for us to visit tomorrow and was instantly overwhelmed with possibilities. Needless to say we’ll be more than able fill 7 days with just shopping if we wanted to but there’s so much more for us to see than just the inside of the stores.