One Step Ahead

Lately, Scott Halford, a corporate lecturer from Denver who travels more than 100,000 miles a year, has been wowing his fellow fliers. "They just think I'm Mr. Magic," he says via mobile phone from Baltimore, on his way to the airport. Two months ago Halford, 40, began logging on to the travel Web site from his Web-enabled mobile phone. The site, which links to an FAA database, gives up-to-the-minute info on a flight's precise location, as well as its estimated arrival or departure time. In many cases, Halford finds out about flight delays before the airport-gate attendants. "I had somebody buy me a beer in Washington, D.C., one time because I was able to give them information that was 45 minutes different than what the airline was giving," he said. But Halford also sees other benefits in the features. "I'm able to make some real plans, like changing flights or making phone calls from the business lounge, and not sit there on my tuchis for an hour and a half," he says. "It's given me the freedom to make decisions."

After a summer that gave us record airport delays, a new crop of wireless services is helping passengers take control of their schedules. "The travel arena is one of the first areas where wireless is really starting to make a difference," says David Eastman, vice president for wireless business at the Internet consulting company Earlier this month Travelocity became one of the first sites to allow travelers to book flights via Web-enabled mobile phones and PDAs., a popular booking site for business travelers, lets users reserve hotel rooms and rental cars. Most sites also offer automatic notification, via mobile phone, PDA or pager, if a flight is delayed or if there is a gate change.

Many more services are on the way. Within the next five years a technology called Bluetooth, which allows electronic devices to communicate wirelessly, will enable airline computers to automatically check in customers by reading their identity off their mobile phone or PDA--no more waiting in line at the gate. Global Positioning System chips embedded into mobile phones will enable location-specific information to be delivered to one's mobile--like the best restaurants, shops and hotels in a specific area. The wireless devices themselves will also improve. "Some of the advancements you'll see will be larger screens, color displays, more functionality and a user experience that is closer to the PC-based Web experience," says Henry Harteveldt, senior analyst at Forrester Research. The gadgets will also become smarter. Palm and Motorola are among the companies that have teamed up to create a mobile phone-handheld computer hybrid.

But that's several years away. First, Americans have to embrace wireless technology on a much wider scale. By the end of this year, only 8 percent of mobile phones in the United States will have Internet access; of those, just 2 percent will be subscribed to the Internet, according to Forrester. Harteveldt believes mobile commerce won't take root in the United States for another three or four years.

That shouldn't stop users from experimenting with what's already out there. The first step is choosing a wireless Internet provider. Most wireless-ready sites are accessible from most mobile phones. But in cases where a travel company has not negotiated a deal with a particular phone company, a customer may have to type in a cumbersome URL in order to view the site. AT&T PocketNet offers direct links to Travelocity, Expedia and from one of its main menus. Nextel Online features links to Travelocity and Expedia. As for PDAs, the Internet-service providers Omnisky, GoAmerica and offer unlimited access to wireless-ready sites at reasonable prices. AT&T's basic service is free for voice subscribers. For about $15 per month, users can have access to any wireless-ready site. Verizon Mobile Web includes 100 e-mail alerts in its basic $6.95 monthly wireless Internet rate.

For fans like Halford, the fees are well worth it. "I love it because it's fun to be able to stand there in front of a ticket agent and have them tell you one thing, and then show them another thing and they are just flabbergasted," he says. It certainly beats watching the CNN Airport Network.