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Internet May Be Key to Helping Sagging Airline Business


Airlines suffering from the general economic downturn may be looking for new ways to boost business and lure more customers. Some are turning to the Internet for help.

Business travelers who complain about being out of touch on long flights may find that is no longer a problem. New technology now allows passengers to send and receive e-mail and surf the internet 10,000 meters above the ground.

Peter Lemme is the Chief Technology Officer at Tenzing Communications. The Seattle-based company has produced a messaging system that will let airline passengers access their e-mails back home. All passengers will have to do is connect a laptop to the in-flight telephone system either a seat-back phone or a special plug in the arm rest.

"They power up their laptop and actually connect to an on-board server and at that server, they enter some credentials, log into the system, and identify the e-mail account they want service. And, from that point forward it looks very much like the e-mail service on the ground," Mr. Lemme said.

Cathay Pacific Airlines has outfitted 30 of its aircraft with the system.

Mr. Lemme said a variation being used by Virgin Atlantic employs the seat-back video screens of in-flight entertainment systems. That, he said, requires the addition of some software programs.

"They simply enter a message into the in-flight entertainment system, effectively the same system you watch movies. It has a virtual keyboard on the screen and you maneuver the cursor using a handset, kind of like what you have on a video game when you have to enter the winning name and you hover over a letter and hit "enter" and pick one letter at a time," he said. A messaging service is just the start.

The Seattle-based communications firm Connexion by Boeing is offering full internet service at high speed through an ethernet hookup in the armrest of an airline seat or through a wireless connection.

Spokesman Sean Griffin said the system uses an antenna on board the airplane that relays data between satellite transponders similar to the way a satellite tv operates.

"The antenna relays the signal to a satellite 22,000 miles above the earth and relays and amplifies it to a ground station on the earth, which sends it to the internet to retrieve exactly the information you're looking for," Mr. Griffin said.

Mr. Griffin said Lufthansa Airlines has been test marketing the system on its flights between Frankfurt and Washington, D.C. He said about one fourth of the 400 passengers on board have used the system.

"Our market research says travelers would be willing to spend somewhere between $30 and $35 for a flight of about seven to eight hours. They see on a longer flight a lot of wasted time in which they are bored and they can't do the kind of work that helps them manage their life on the ground," Mr. Griffin said.

Market analysts are still not persuaded there is a large market for the new technology but British Airways, Scandinavian Airlines and Japan Airlines are already set to test market the service in the coming months.

Mr. Griffin says three top American airline companies had signed up for the internet hookup but had to put their plans on hold after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington sent the airline industry into a downward economic spiral.

He said the delay in servicing U.S. airliners is not linked to security issues and suggests an internet connection may even enhance airline safety.

"The fact that we are broadband means our service can host a lot of applications. And we have demonstrated recently the ability to really help folks on the ground understand where the airliner is, what it's doing and to stream live video from the airplane to the ground. So this capability could enhance aviation security considerably," Mr. Griffin said.

The cell phone as a potential connecting device for the inflight internet service remains off limits. Mr. Griffin said use of a cell phone in flight is still prohibited because of interference with the onboard-computerized data systems.

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