Plane Answers: Pilot asks, “Is there anyone on board with internet access?”

It just might surprise you to know that when sitting on the ground, waiting out a line of thunderstorms, we don’t have access to depictions of real-time weather updates. We can fire up the radar and look ahead for 40 or so miles, but there’s just no way to know if a re-route offered by ATC is going to keep us out of the weather or create more problems further into our flight.

Cessna 172s have real-time weather capability with a $50 subscription to XM Radio’s WX Satellite Weather, but so far, no domestic U.S. airline has incorporated that technology in their airplanes. We checked out Virgin America’s cockpit a few months back and found that even they don’t have this capability built in yet, though they did at least have GoGo inflight wi-fi which could potentially help.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when passengers aboard a Continental Airlines flight were asked if they had a laptop with internet access while on the ground waiting for weather to pass.

In an apparently savvy move, the captain borrowed Evan Gotlib’s wi-fi card equipped Macbook Tuesday evening to try to come up with a routing out of Newark that would get around ATC flow-control restrictions.

Evan writes on his blog:

There were two or three different lines of storms in the west and south that were affecting all Newark outbound air traffic. There is no mechanism on a 737-500 to look at weather. The radar they have only works in flight, and even then it can’t show what’s happening outside of about 50 miles. We were 50th-yes 50th-in line for takeoff and the captain said that at that point air traffic control really does not care anymore. Their number one priority is international flights, then they get to domestic. So he wanted to see if he could figure out a new route around the storms that he could propose to air traffic control. Neat.

So they used my laptop to go to this site: The best part was that neither of them knew how to drive a Mac, let alone Safari, so I surfed for them. It was cool to listen to them talk about different flight plans. This went on for a few minutes and then they got on with air traffic control and someone found a new route. I’m not sure if it was us or air traffic control, but I’d like to think it was us.

I was really hoping for a pair of wings or an honorary junior captain’s badge or something but all I got was an extra cookie from the flight attendant. That was pretty cool.

Oh, one more thing. I’ll never be able to help when the “is there a doctor on board” announcement comes over the PA system. But when the “is there someone with wi-fi who knows how to use the internet on board” announcement is made, I’m there.

Nice job on the captain’s part for thinking outside the box. Of course, a few of us have discovered the power of an iPhone in this situation, but whether it’s a connected laptop or an iPhone, nothing beats the coverage and situational awareness that XM’s service provides. It needs to be built-in and accessible by every pilot, in every airplane that an airline flies to be effective.

I’m hoping airlines will recognize the benefits of connecting cockpits to a reliable weather source. But we could even take it further. Imagine inflight sensors that could transmit more accurate and detailed turbulence levels from aircraft all over the country that could be displayed on our map and updated in real-time. Oh, but I dream.

Until then, if you hear us ask to borrow your wi-fi connected Mac while number 50 in line on the ground, don’t all rush to the cockpit at once.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.