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Skies Become Friendlier For In-Flight Wi-Fi

Wireless Internet is now available in the sky. Roughly 1 in 3 domestic planes already has it, and the number is growing.

To use it, simply turn on the Wi-Fi, connect to the in-flight network and -- most of the time at least -- that's it. It's surprisingly fast.

On a recent Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to San Jose, Calif., Julie Alverez is using her laptop to download software and to play a game on Facebook. About a third of her fellow passengers are logged on -- some using iPhones.

Facebook is the most popular website for Alaska Airlines' passengers. Google, Yahoo, Twitter and YouTube come next. Travelers use the Wi-Fi to check their e-mail and log on to their corporate networks. One first-class bloody-mary-sipping passenger listens to the Rolling Stones on Pandora while reading his e-mail. And then, there's passenger Katie Rose, who is booking a kayak trip.

"I think it's wonderful," Rose says of the airline's Wi-Fi. "I hope it stays free forever."

But it won't. Right now, it's free on Alaska Airlines because of a special pricing promotion.

About 1,000 U.S. jets have been equipped with Wi-Fi. Air Tran and Virgin America have it on all their flights. Delta and Alaska are quickly moving in that direction.

How does it work? The most widely used system comes from a company called Aircell. It has 100 special cell towers that point upward, connect with antennas on the belly of the plane and turn the passenger cabin into a Wi-Fi hot spot.

For Many, Price Is Too Steep

Getting online costs about $5 for a 90-minute flight. On flights longer than three hours, the price climbs to as much as $12.95.

Some package deals are less expensive. But industry consultant Michael Planey says for many the price is too high, and lots of passengers who could aren't logging on.

"The airlines have managed to add fees -- instead of raising fares -- to just about everything and when a passenger gets onboard, the last thing they want to get hit with is another fee," Planey says.

It probably doesn't matter to passengers that Aircell -- not the airline -- sets the price and collects nearly all the fee.

Despite the price, a few passengers are willing to pay. Dave Borgesse, whose employer will foot the bill, actively looks for flights with Wi-Fi.

"It's helped my productivity immensely," Borgesse says. "I'm still connected. I can work the whole time. Love it. It makes the flights go by faster, and I've spend a lot less money on magazines, actually."

Still, there are committed nonusers. Some don't like the idea of being tethered to the office in the one place you used to be able to escape. Others just want to read a book without feeling guilty or, like Paul Rasher, they just want to do nothing.

"I'd rather just sit back and relax and so [I] don't think it's that great of an idea," he says.

One idea airlines have nixed is in-flight phone calls using services like Skype. Passengers don’t want their fellow travelers talking on the phone at 35,000 feet, so those transmissions will be blocked.

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