Oprah Calling: Skype Video Chat on a Plane?

By now, you probably know that Oprah Winfrey loves Skype (not to mention Twitter). A few weeks ago, in fact, Oprah did a Skype video chat on her TV show with Virgin America's Mandalay Roberts, while Roberts was airborne on a Virgin America plane.

Out of curiosity, I watched the Skype-on-a-plane segment--and I shivered. Air travel is noisy and stressful enough. The thought of sitting next to someone screaming into their laptop's Webcam, "Can you see me now?," is enough to have me reaching for the Xanax.

Oprah and Roberts made it clear that Skype video chat at 37,000 feet is not something regular passengers are allowed to do. Though Virgin America has become the first--and thus far only--U.S. carrier to offer fleet-wide Wi-Fi, Voice over IP calls are disabled (and cell phone calls aren't currently allowed, either).

But could Skype video chats on a plane soon be a reality for everyday travelers? I posed this and other questions about technology in the skies to Henry H. Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst for airline and travel research at Forrester Research. Here's a brief summary of our conversation.

Q: Will We See Video Chats on Planes Anytime Soon?

A: It's technically possible, as we know. But the desire for silent communications on a plane, rather than voice communications, is strong. About 85 percent of air passengers have told [Forrester Research] they're against any kind of voice calls on a plane.

The other issue is bandwidth. While in-flight Wi-Fi is nearly as fast as what you'd get in a café or at home, the Wi-Fi systems onboard aircraft today aren't designed to support the demands of voice or video conversations. The quality of those conversations over Wi-Fi wouldn't be very good in most cases, especially if a lot of people were simultaneously trying to do it.

If voice and video chat were permitted, the Wi-Fi providers and airlines would probably have to invest in equipment designed to handle that additional burden, in order to create an acceptable chat experience. The more equipment you add, the more weight you add to the plane, which drives up fuel and other costs.

However, the airlines will continue to monitor the situation. If they see a way to make money by allowing Skype or other chats, I'm sure they'll look at it. They might develop designated cabins for people who want to make voice calls, for instance. [Veteran flyers may remember that airplanes once had smoking sections. --J.A.M.] Otherwise, I think there would be just too much resistance to it.

Outside the U.S., some European carriers, such as Air France, have been experimenting with allowing cell phone use in flight. Most passengers are just using their phones for texting and other data-type services, rather than for voice.

Q: Are Virgin America and Delta Still the U.S.'s Most 'Wired' Airlines?

A: Yes. Virgin has 100 percent of its aircraft equipped with Wi-Fi. Delta has 50 percent of its domestic fleet equipped. You can check Delta's blog for updates.

Q: Do You Expect Airlines to Use Wi-Fi to Deliver In-Flight Entertainment?

A: In the next five years or so, I'd expect most of the domestic airlines to offer video on demand, TV, music, and other programming over their Wi-Fi networks. They might do this through partnerships with the companies that offer the Wi-Fi in-flight services (such as Row 44 and Aircell). They could share the revenues with the Wi-Fi service providers.

It makes a lot of sense for the airlines to get out of the entertainment business themselves. They spend a lot of money on entertainment system hardware (such as seatback video screens) in terms of equipment costs, installation, and maintenance. Entertainment systems add weight to the plane, which is another expense. And the airlines spend millions of dollars every year on licensing fees to the entertainment industry.

It also makes sense because most people who own laptops travel with them, and they're already using their laptops for in-flight entertainment they bring themselves. In the next few years, we'll also see a lot of devices like the rumored Apple tablet come out, giving passengers yet another way to access entertainment in flight.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. You can follow him on Twitter. Jim is also the coauthor of "Getting Organized in the Google Era," to be published by Crown in March 2010. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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