Thanks to Alaska Airlines (ALK), the days of frantically sending one last message before putting your phone on airplane mode for takeoff might be a thing of the past.
On Friday, the Seattle-based carrier introduced the launch of Free Chat, a complimentary service that will allow passengers to send messages from the air. Free Chat is currently available on flights equipped with Gogo wireless (only five 737s in the airline’s fleet are not equipped), and will be limited to services that operate over wi-fi, like WhatsApp, iMessage and Facebook Messenger. Text messaging (SMS and MMS) requires cell service to operate and will not work with Free Chat.
“We know that staying in touch while on the go is essential to our guests, many of whom don’t need full Internet access,” said Andrew Harrison, Alaska Airlines’ executive vice president. “Free Chat is a great way to keep that connection alive without breaking the bank. And yes, it’s fully emoji-compatible.”
Free Chat is currently available in beta and will launch on Alaska Air flights with full functionality on Jan. 24. Virgin America, which was acquired by Alaska Airlines in Dec.is not currently a part of the rollout.
While Alaska Air one-upped the competition by making the connection free, they aren’t the first ones to offer in-flight messaging. Delta offers a wi-fi moblie pass for as low as $2, which allows passengers to send and receive messages on iMessage, What’sApp, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger during all flights. United and American Airlines both require passengers to purchase full wi-fi plans, which costs $5 to $20, to send and receive messages.
Many airlines partner with Gogo to provide inflight wi-fi, but at the end of 2015, the wireless carrier also launched its own messaging pass that allows fliers to access apps like Skype, Viber, iMessage and WhatsApp on their smartphones for just $3.
With new entertainment options and services like Free Chat, the rules are changing and flying has become more digital and phone-friendly. For years, the Federal Aviation Administration had strict rules about how passengers could use their smartphones on planes. That all changed in 2015, when the the FAA approved the use of phones and small electronic devices during takeoff and landing. Since then, travel authorities have continued to push the envelope on what forms of communication should be permitted in the air.
The Federal Communications Commission still bans cellular use on planes, however, voice calls over wi-fi networks with apps like Skype, Facetime and Google Hangouts do not fall into this category. That means we could soon live in a world where people could have phone conversations at 35,000 feet. To keep passengers from taking advantage of this loophole, the Department of Transportation announced a proposal on Dec. 8 that would require airlines to announce in advance if wireless calls are allowed during flights.
In the case of Alaska Airlines, wireless voice calls will not be enabled with Free Chat.
Brittany is a writer on Yahoo Finance.