Give Me DisConnexion

Hongkong and Shanghai Bank waiting area
China World Trade Centre, Beijing
1529 hrs.

The media, in particular The Wall Street Journal, is reporting that Boeing is looking to sell or close its Connexion division, the business unit dedicated to delivering high speed broadband to people in their airline seats.

I’m sad to see it go, for a lot of reasons. First, it lands spot in the middle of two of my passions, telecommunications and aviation. Second, I thought it was a pretty good idea, enamored as I was of the idea of realtime e-mail (and later, blogging) from 40,000 feet. And third, as I told a couple of Connexion executives about four years ago, it was the one extra ingredient that turned an ordinary airliner with a look-down camera into a spy plane.

But it was not to be, and I’m starting to understand why.

Five Dollars Off

About six weeks ago I was flying from Singapore to Beijing, and a friendly person in the boarding lounge came up to me, asked me if I was traveling with a Wi-F equipped laptop. “But of course,” came my nearly-Gallic-in-it’s-indignance, Heinz-the-Baron-Klaus-von-Espy reply. “I am, after all, a Macintosh user.”

The young lady gave me a slightly strained smile and handed me a card. “This is good for $5 off of high-speed broadband access on the flight. Have a good trip,” she called as she hurriedly moved on to the next passenger.

I ran onto the plane (I’m like bloody Seabiscuit out of the gates when they open the boarding door – gotta be the first on and first off – “Hi, my name’s Dave and I’m an obsessive compulsive.” “Hi, Dave”), got myself settled, and took long look at the card.

I used to work on planes. Back at the beginning of my career and before the invention of the laptop computer, fresh out of grad school, I’d work from the time the seatbelt sign was turned off until it went back on again. Often, I’d travel with a colleague, and there was this unspoken competition to see which of us could get more done between Taipei and Honolulu, then again between Honolulu and LAX.

A Piece of Peace

I realized something as I stared at that card. The time I spend from hearing the words “flight attendants please arm doors and cross-check” until I hear the words “thank you – buh-bye” from same FAs at the end of the line is the only time I can really unwire, unwind, and contemplate. Depending on the duration of the flight, I’ll study a bit of Talmud, eat two meals, read a trashy work of historical fiction, and sleep. In between, I’ll listen to my iPod.

And I need that down time. I think a lot of us do. For me the best excuse for getting on the plane is that the phone is off, I’m offline, and even a Blackberry is off. It is the last refuge, the one place you can be and say you’re offline without having somebody resent you for it. I may not be rested when I haul my carcass off of a trans-Pacific flight, but I am refreshed, and a good night’s sleep will do the rest.

As the flight began its descent into Beijing in the late afternoon, I was treated to a multihued skyscape with cloud layers above and below and the sun between them, it was stunning, and it was somehow perfectly meshed with the music I was hearing through my headphones.

No email was important enough for me to miss that moment.

As cool as Connexion is, it’s not for me anymore. And in this always-on, always-plugged-in world, I suspect there are a lot of people who secretly think the same thing:

“I’m on the plane. Leave me alone.”

So I took a long hard look at that discount card. And stuffed it into the bowels of my carryon, never to be seen again.