February 26, 2004

Wi-Fi and Airports

Wireless computer users rush to take advantage of free access at Pittsburgh International's food courts

Thursday, February 26, 2004
By Corilyn Shropshire, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Balancing his silver Macintosh laptop like a waiter with a tray of dishes, businessman Vito Palmieri paced the floor searching for an Internet signal.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Anand Rao takes advantage of extra time and the free wireless internet access at the Pittsburgh International Airport food court while waiting on his flight.
Click photo for larger image.

He finally found one, just a few steps away from his table at Pittsburgh International Airport, which offers travelers wireless fidelity or "Wi-Fi" Internet access in its food courts.

That Palmieri and other air travelers can get online while cooling their heels is not unusual. Wireless networking is as common as last-minute air fare deals, with some 150 airports around the world offering such service.

What is remarkable is that at Pittsburgh International, Wi-Fi users can surf the Web free of charge. Most airports charge user fees, which typically run from $7 to $10.

Salt-and-pepper-haired Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor Don McPherson, who moonlights as a labor arbitrator, recently sat tapping away on his laptop near the airport McDonald's before jetting off to his final destination -- a meeting in Cincinnati.

McPherson, who lives in Indiana, Pa., was able to check the weather at his destination city and quickly browse his work and home e-mail accounts. Without the airport's free Wi-Fi access, he said, he wouldn't have bothered.

"It probably wouldn't be worth it. I wouldn't pay just to check e-mail."

Scenarios such as McPherson's are what airport general manager Tony Gialloreto hoped would happen with no-fee Wi-Fi. "If you only have a delay from a half-hour to an hour, it's not worth it for the traveling public to pay a fee."

The goodwill that free Wi-Fi creates can only add to the airport's reputation for service and innovation, Gialloreto said. If it also helps passengers linger a little longer and spend a little more at the Airmall and other attractions, all the better.

The airport introduced free Wi-Fi with little fanfare in October and plans to expand the service to include all of the A, B and part of the C concourses sometime this year. Whether the service remains free has yet to be determined and will depend largely on whether the airport's cost for providing it rise much.

Deploying the network, which involved installing box-like radio transmitters, cost the airport less than $20,000. But maintaining, servicing and expanding the network could prove to be more costly. Pittsburgh International will begin charging for Wi-Fi only if it becomes saddled with operation costs, Gialloreto said.

Brian Grimm, spokesman for the Wi-Fi Alliance, a Wi-Fi network industry group, said travelers have come to expect connectivity in airports -- as well as in coffeehouses, restaurants and just about anywhere else where people gather. He said Pittsburgh International's decision to make it free was "cool" and affirms the airport's reputation as being "on the leading edge."

For Anand Rao, who recently received a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University, the free Wi-Fi provided something to do as he waited for a flight that eventually would take him to his home in Pune, India. "I'm not working on anything. It's just a good thing to pass time," he said with a laugh as he crouched over his laptop while sitting in the food court.

Airport food courts typically are filled with harried travelers slurping down drinks and gobbling food, but at Pittsburgh International recently, many were like Rao, tapping away at a computer with one hand and holding a sandwich in the other. "The first thing I did was e-mail my friends that I'm using the Internet in the airport," said Rao.

(Corilyn Shropshire can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1413.)

'I'll have a sandwich with my Wi-Fi, please'

Posted by Craig at February 26, 2004 07:58 PM