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
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
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
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.