Delta Airlines is already offering the service at its terminal in Vancouver, British Columbia, and plans to have it available by the end of next year in its main hub cities Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas-Fort Worth.
United Airlines, which had the worst on-time performance in August among the major carriers, announced plans to start its own Internet service next year at 30 airports.
Passengers will need only a computer with the right wireless modem. The latest laptops are equipped and a few dollars to pay for access.
Frequent fliers will be able purchase an unlimited access account for $40 to $60 a month.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a travel advocacy group, sees the move as a panacea for growing bottlenecks at America's airports.
"As passengers experience more delays and cancellations, they find themselves in the waiting areas longer than they're used to," Stempler said. "Clearly, to make that time more productive, it's a tremendous benefit for passengers."
Some travelers agree.
"Wireless access would be dynamite. The more I can stay in contact with my factory and my sales people, the better it's going to be," Derrick Gurski, a national sales manager at a Chicago lighting company, said as he waited for a flight at Washington's Reagan National Airport.
Delta and United are partners with Aerzone, a San Francisco company backed by major electronic industry players like Nokia and Cisco, to provide wireless local area networks, or LANs, at airport lounges, gates and terminals.
With a properly equipped computer, travelers will be able to connect to their office computers through the Internet, check and send e-mail or shop on the World Wide Web.
For those looking for something a bit lighter, the wireless pipeline to the Internet is expected to be large enough to allow passengers to download a DVD movie in three minutes or watch full-screen television.
The plans come at a time when relations between airlines and travelers are frayed over delays. Only 70 percent of planes are making their schedules, the Transportation Department says. United Airlines came in last among the 10 large carriers in August, with just 42.7 percent on-time arrivals.
American Airlines already offers wireless access in its Admirals Club lounges and is choosing a vendor for access at its gates. Its next project will be high-speed Internet access in the cabins of its jets.
"It's on the front burner, but it's probably going to be 2001 until we even have a beta test," American Airlines spoesman Mark Kensall said. "There's a lot involved in flight. It's a lot more complicated than it might seem."
Dr. Lawrence B. Brilliant, chairman and chief executive of Aerzone, agreed that in-flight access will take extra time as airlines work to ensure such communications do not interfere with the operation of jets. Some cell phones, handheld games and portable devices can interfere with cockpit communications.
Meanwhile, travelers will be able to have plenty of fun.
A user, sitting within a hundred feet of a wireless network broadcaster within a terminal, will get the equivalent of 100 television channels of computer bandwidth.
It is useless, however, without a computer that can receive the barrage of radio waves. Within the past two weeks, major laptop makers such as IBM and Dell have started manufacturing computers that need no extra hardware to handle wireless connections. Apple's iBook laptop and new G4 Cube also can handle the radio waves.
While the new technology promises possibilities for passengers, it will not erase all their problems.
"Who's worried about e-commerce on an airplane when they don't even have seats that are comfortable?" asked Jim Janson, a traveler from San Francisco.
©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed