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
Boeing and Tenzing are proposing different technological
answers to the current problems associated with airborne
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
Tenzing says its service can be used right now, while
Boeing projects commercial installations beginning next year.
Tenzing says six airlines 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,
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
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
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.
U.S. airlines hesitant
But U.S. airlines in particular are not rushing to adopt a
particular technology, for fear of throwing money at the
"Any time you put technology on board an aircraft, there 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 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 AMR Corp. unit.