In-flight communication options on flights in Australia have generally been a case of promising much and delivering little. Plans to offer Internet access (and texting on phones) have progressed slowly. Before the A380 was launched, Qantas said that it would include on-board Internet, but that hadn't happened at launch, and as of now it still hasn't happened. The technology works well enough — I've tried it on short-haul flights in the US — but so far there's been no action here.
On my most recent Qantas trip to the States, I was lucky enough to get upgraded into business class. This was good for my internal travel geek, as it now means I've sampled three classes — economy, premium economy and business — on the A380. (I don't imagine I'll ever get to try first somehow.) The only niggling complaints I could make about business class are that there's no dedicated shoe holder and you can't watch the Skycam during take-off and landing as your screen has to be stowed, both of which are the type of critiques I would strangle someone for when seated in economy.
With more room on offer, I decided to try out a feature of the A380 I hadn't previously tested: sending SMS messages to a plane on the ground. In the absence of real Internet, this is sophisticated as communications on Australian flights seems likely to get at the moment.
The pricing is certainly sophisticated: $US1.90 for each message you send or receive. As such, the novelty of sending an "I'm on the plane" message would fade pretty quickly, but it could be useful if (for example) you wanted someone to contact you with news of an important business deal or vital family event while in the air.
You don't use your own phone (or phone number) for the system. Instead, you type in your message using a keypad on the back of the remote control for your entertainment unit, or a touch screen on the entertainment display. Neither is particularly impressive — typing capitals is particularly fiddly on the handheld unit — but they get the job done.
As well as sending it to a mobile number, you can have your message optionally copied to any email address you specify. Swipe your credit card and the message takes off. The credit card reader was pretty fiddly and required several goes, but got there eventually.
If you receive a reply, the pop-up message seen on the picture at the top of the article appears. You don't have to elect to collect your messages, which is potentially useful: a not-too-cluey respondent might send you multiple responses and cost you a fortune.
The key word there is "might", because in practice I never got to read the reply I'd asked a mate to send. Every time I tried, I got the same message: "Service unavailable: Please try again later". Despite repeated attempts over the last four hours of the flight, it never worked properly. I eventually saw the reply message when it was forwarded to my email address, a service which I didn't get charged for.
That kind of technical glitch isn't uncommon when using any kind of mobile service, of course, and there wasn't anything particularly vital at stake. Nonetheless, I can't imagine I'll be racing back to test this particular service in a hurry. And rather than fixing it, I'd rather Qantas finally got around to offering proper in-flight Internet on these long haul journeys.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman probably already tweets too much from planes as it is. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.