Airlines Explore In-Flight Web

Investigating into an array of companies to bring Internet in-flight, US airlines remain cautious about investing in technology that may turn out to be the wrong one.

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In-flight Internet and e-mail is inching closer to fruition on commercial airline flights, but U.S. airlines remain cautious as they investigate the array of companies seeking to provide such services.

"On-board e-mail and Internet capability is inevitable for the airline industry,'' said Kent Craver, manager of on-board product marketing for Continental Airlines Inc.. "We're just not sure how and when.''

Tenzing Communications said Wednesday it transmitted e-mail from an Air Canada flight from Ottawa to Vancouver in a test of its system.

The Seattle-based start-up also has secured a deal with Comsat, a unit of Lockheed Martin Corp., for Tenzing to use Comsat's air-to-ground communications network.

Tenzing is not the only one to send e-mail from an aircraft. Commercial airplane maker Boeing Co. has several tests of its Connexion in-flight Web and e-mail service running in private jets, including that of Boeing Chief Executive Phil Condit, who last year spent more than 75 days aboard airplanes.

Boeing and Tenzing are proposing different technological answers to the current problems associated with airborne Internet use.

Boeing is attempting to use a full-capacity telecommunications infrastructure to offer a real-time Internet service equivalent to what users have on the ground.

Tenzing, on the other hand, is offering a "cached'' or prepackaged Internet stored in an on-board server computer, which would periodically forward e-mail to the ground and back.

Tenzing says its service can be used right now, while Boeing projects commercial installations beginning next year.

Tenzing says six airlines who have agreed to trials of its system, though only Air Canada and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways have gone public with planned trials.

Currently, in-flight phone service can carry only a very limited amount of voice or data through an airplane's communications network, and although travelers may be able to hook up a laptop and dial into the Internet, the connection will be slow, unreliable and expensive.

"If four people are on the phone simultaneously on the aircraft that's about all you can do,'' said Alan Pellegrini, Tenzing's chief operating officer.

For many users to have reliable connections capable of transmitting lots of data, companies will either have to develop substantial wireless networks, as Boeing and In-Flight are attempting, or find other solutions -- such as using an on-board server to store Web pages and buffer connection breaks, sending data periodically in compressed packages, as Tenzing plans.

There are ten or more companies in all offering various Internet-connection technologies to airlines, and airlines say they are investigating all of them.

Inflightonline.com, which is offering a prepackaged Internet and has developed numerous Web content partnerships, is one. On Wednesday it announced a spate of new partners, including elimousine, which would allow passengers to book a car, and Restaurantrow.com, where they could make a dinner reservation online.

In-Flight Network LLC, a joint venture of media giant News Corp. and Rockwell Collins, which has experience in in-flight entertainment systems and airborne communications, is developing its own network for air-to-ground communications in a system competitive with Boeing's.

But U.S. airlines in particular are not rushing to adopt a particular technology, for fear of being throwing money at the wrong one.

"Any time you put technology on board an aircraft a lot of things you have to be concerned about,'' Craver said.

"If you rush too soon and it is not adopted widely you've made a large capital investment for something that is obsolete by the time it gets on the aircraft.''

Airline representatives have also said they want a technology that makes sense both for their customers, the passengers, and for the airline financially.

American Airlines is unlikely to adopt one of the in-flight Web services until at least next year, said Mark Kienzle, a spokesman for for AMR Corp.