Firing off e-mail messages or grazing the Internet from an airline seat 35,000 feet above the ground is still a bright idea on the business travel horizon. But the harsh travel industry reality after the Sept. 11 attacks and the economic climate may have slowed its arrival for the moment.
One company that hoped to wire airline cabins for e-mail and Internet access has folded, three big carriers have pulled out of another project
as investors and a third firm is still at the test stage.
“It is not going forward at this time,” said Todd Burke, a spokesman for American Airlines
AMR.N. “We pretty much agreed after Sept. 11 that it is something we will consider but it is not a high priority for us.”
He was speaking of Connexion, a joint venture American entered into with the Boeing Co.
BA.N along with United Airlines
UAL.N and Delta Air Lines
The company is working with a fourth airline,
LHAG.DE, as a customer but the three U.S. based carriers have dropped out as investors.
A spokesman for Connexion said they may return as customers at some point, that 17 carriers are in discussions with it and that a prototype on Lufthansa will soon be in the air.
The Boeing project
is a broadband satellite-based service that would provide real-time high-speed Internet and intranet access as well as television and e-mail to airline passengers—giving the passenger the same services with the same speed he or she has at the office or at home. But it`s impossible to predict when the economic climate and other concerns will free up the airlines to go after such technology in wholesale fashion.
“We are looking at connectivity options,” the American spokesman said, without being specific. One of those options in American`s case apparently will not be the seat-back telephone. American is removing them from its domestic fleet because, Burke said, only an average of three calls per day per aircraft were being made. Seat-back phones, while equipped with data ports, have never been that popular for Internet access or dialing up e-mail because of the hefty connection and per-minute charges involved.
Southwest also pulled its seat-back phones a while back. In both cases the carriers say customers were using cellular phones while the planes were on the ground and passing on the option of making a call in the air.
American says it will keep a satellite-based telephone system on its longest range aircraft—Boeing 777s and the 767-300s. Those phones are equipped with data ports for those willing to pay the charges.
Even before the attacks on New York and Washington, the economic downturn that battered business travel forced a second player out of the airline Internet field.
In-Flight Network LLC, a joint venture of Rockwell Collins COL.N and News Corp. NCP.AXNWS.N, had planned to offer a broadband service using satellites and technology from QUALCOMM Inc. QCOM.O and Globalstar GSTRF.OB. But poor business conditions ended that.
The third player in the field, and an optimistic one, is Seattle-based Tenzing Communications Inc.,
which says it has test systems operating now on board 20 aircraft of Cathay Pacific
0293.HK and Brazil`s Varig VAGV4.SA and is talking with two or three other carriers.
It also completed a recent test with Air Canada AC.TO, and says Cathay Pacific hopes to roll out the system commercially toward the middle of 2002.
The Tenzing system is not true real-time connectivity. The passenger can however access a server on the plane which intermittently sends and receives bursts of data, refreshing cached news and securities quotes, for instance, or sending and receiving e-mail.
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