Both Qantas and Virgin have announced in-flight Wi-Fi trials that will commence in early 2012. I'd love to see Wi-Fi more widely available on Australian flights, but I'm not holding my breath.
The reason I'm sceptical is because we've heard this promised many times before, but so far no-one has actually delivered a permanent service. Qantas, for instance, had originally proposed to offer Internet access when it first rolled out the A380 back in October 2008, but that service was conspicuously absent at launch. Regulatory issues have been a factor, but it's hard to avoid the suspicion that cash-strapped airlines haven't seen a Wi-Fi refit as their top priority. Add to that the inevitable cackle of commentary that suggests the ability to make phone calls will ruin what passes for social ambience on planes, and there's another excuse for delay. Which is annoying, because in-flight internet can be really handy when you're on deadline.
Qantas has promised to start its latest trial in February next year. However, it will only occur on A380 flights to Los Angeles (and only on half-a-dozen designated aircraft). Perhaps more to the point, it will only be made available to passengers in business and first class. As it uses Wi-Fi, I imagine passengers in economy will be able to see the hotspot, but won't be given any log-in details.
Any service is welcome, but I suspect it would be more useful to offer Wi-Fi on A380 flights to Europe. That's purely because of jetlag: given the timing of flights to the US, it makes sense to sleep as much as possible if you want to co-ordinate with local time zones. On flights to Europe, conversely, on the whole Australia-Singapore run it makes more sense to stay awake. That said, since I never get to fly in business class except on the rare occasion there's an upgrade, I suspect it will be a while before I can trial it. Qantas hasn't set a timeframe on how long the testing will run for.
Virgin's plans are even further away. Its BoardConnect service will deliver on-board entertainment via Wi-Fi to passengers, using either their own devices or tablets that will be available for rent. There's shades of Jetstar in that latter detail, though Jetstar's own iPad scheme has content stored on each individual device.
However, at this stage Virgin hasn't announced any concrete plans to offer actual Internet access through the service. Given that it's a trial, that seems reasonable enough, but it does place the moment when domestic flights get access to Wi-Fi a long way into the future. It's clearly not impossible to implement; it's a common option in the US, and by comparison American airlines are even more underfunded. I wish the locals would hurry up.
A final point: I know there are plenty of people who enjoy the disconnected state which being on a plane brings. The fact that it's an option doesn't mean anyone is going to be forced to use it, just as the introduction of on-board entertainment doesn't stop you reading a book. I for one would welcome the choice, but everyone's mileage will vary.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman promises he won't use Skype on board. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.