Coffee, tea or wi-fi? That could be a common question on Australian flights in the next few years if trends in in-flight connectivity are anything to go by.
Telstra is already trialling a new 4G system capable of delivering broadband speeds to domestic flights.
The test network uses four dedicated base stations covering most of the commercial air corridor between Sydney and Melbourne to provide an average data speed of 10Mbps to aircraft.
The carrier says it plans additional tests later this year with an eye towards “building a nationwide, commercial (high-speed) network in the sky”.
Most US airlines offer internet on domestic flights using the Gogo service that, like the Telstra trials, uses a ground-based mobile phone network.
GoGo charges a flat $US5 per hour, but the 24-hour pass for $US16 and unlimited monthly access for $US60 are most popular with frequent flyers.
GoGo's current technology serves up 10Mbps to the aircraft, which then has to be shared between passengers.
But by the middle of next year, Gogo will be able to offer a 70Mbps pipe via both domestic ground stations and international satellites.
That's not only fast enough for true in-flight broadband, it can even smoothly beam live TV channels onto your in-seat video screen or tablet.
Meanwhile, mobile satellite operator Inmarsat is working on a European in-flight broadband service that will also combine both ground-based 4G and satellite networks to provide a fast pipeline to aircraft in the UK and around the continent.
Etihad gets it right
So where does that leave airlines operating in Australian airspace? At the time of writing, only three airlines flying to Australia – Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines – offer in-flight internet.
Emirates and Singapore charge according to how much data you use, with prices starting around $10 to $15 for 10-25MB of data. That's sufficient for a solid email session and some basic web browsing.
Etihad, however, bills you based on how long you want to spend connected, from $US12 for a two-hour session up to $US22 for the entire flight.
There's no data cap, although the satellite connection's speed tops out around 3Mbps. While slower than most 3G smartphones, that's sufficient for email, social media and browsing the web, although more modern and image-laden websites are slow to load.
Nonetheless, paying $US22 to have internet access on a recent Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi all the way to Sydney was a no-brainer.
I didn't spend the entire 14 hours of the flight online, of course, but it let me work or browse the web whenever I wanted, and for as long as I wanted.
Qantas A380 trials
Qantas tested satellite internet in 2012 on its Airbus A380 flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Los Angeles, but pulled the plug after a lacklustre response from travellers.
The airline says less than 5 per cent of travellers connected to the service.
“Whilst customers who used the wi-fi service told us that they valued the option to connect in flight, overall the trial demonstrated a lower than expected take-up of the service, particularly on overnight flights where sleep was their priority,” Qantas explains.
However, there are other international routes from Australia that would be perfectly suited to in-flight internet. This includes the busy trans-Tasman corridor, via which business travellers shuttle across the pond during daylight hours.
Daytime flights to and from Asia – definitely Singapore and Hong Kong, probably also Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur – also offer the chance to reap a prized serve of productivity.
As for domestic flights: that's a harder nut to crack. The obvious contender would be the east-west routes. Business travellers shuttling from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Perth would gain the most from being connected during the five-hour transcontinental trek.
It's harder to see a high take-up of in-flight internet on the shorter routes between east coast capitals – the 'golden triangle' of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Going back to Telstra's trials for Sydney-Melbourne flights, those flights are typically scheduled at 90 minutes' duration. This leaves around one hour (excluding ascent and descent) during which the internet could be available and laptops, tablets and smartphones could be switched on.
Is anybody really crying out for internet access for just 60 minutes in the air?
It's different in the US where heavily trafficked business routes between Los Angeles/San Francisco and New York/Washington DC/Boston allow some five hours for being online. That's the better part of a working day, especially when you take the three-hour time loss on east-bound flights into account.
But even the longest leg of the Aussie triangle, between Brisbane and Melbourne, would allow passengers to hook up for less than two hours.
So while Telstra's trials show that we have the technology to stay connected in Australian skies, do travellers have the desire to support its use?
Have you used in-flight internet overseas? Would you use it on Australian domestic routes or across the Tasman?
David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.