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Business Travel: Singapore Airlines Introduces In-Flight E-Mail

For over a year, airlines have been fiddling around with technology and fretting about when and how they`re going to introduce in-flight e-mail and Internet capability on their airplanes.
But now it`s off to the races for these services, which industry surveys show that business travelers put first on wish lists of technological amenities they want on board. On Sunday, from over the Pacific, on a flight to Los Angeles, Singapore Airlines dispatched an e-mail announcement to dozens of reporters, gleefully claiming bragging rights as the first airline to provide passengers with the capability to plug their laptops into in-seat telephone ports to send and receive e-mail and browse about 30 Web sites.
“There`s always an enormous amount of pressure because the time line for products to cycle and competitors to reach parity is getting shorter and shorter,” said James Boyd, a spokesman for the airline. “There`s a desire on the Singapore side to be first, because we`ve always led the market with in-flight entertainment offerings. So being first with in-flight e-mail on a global scale is certainly important to us.”
After testing the new system for six weeks on a Boeing 747 on the Singapore-Los Angeles route, the airline decided to officially take it live months before competitors like Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific, which are outfitting their aircraft with the same technology this year.
“We decided it was good enough, so we officially launched it” on Sunday, said Teng Kwong Yeoh, the senior manager of in-flight services and entertainment for Singapore Airlines. Over the next 12 to 14 months, he said, the airline will spend more than $100 million to equip 55 other 747`s and 777`s with the service, which is supplied by Tenzing Communications, a two-year-old Seattle- based company that is also providing similar satellite-based air-ground systems to other airlines.
Though it ballyhooed being the first, Singapore Airlines concedes that the service is still somewhat limited. For one thing, it`s only available right now on a single aircraft on the Singapore-Los Angeles route. On that plane, only 24 passengers at a time can be online with their laptops.
“On board we have a system that allows for 30 telephone lines,” said Dr. Yeoh, who sent e-mail himself from the flight on Sunday. “We reserve 6 lines for telephones, making available 24 for e-mail. If you have 24 simultaneous users, then the 25th will have to wait for a line.”
As to data speed, “within the cabin, we managed to get up to 33.6 kilobytes per second,” Dr. Yeoh said. “For e-mail and Web service, it was a comfortable speed. It was O.K. I didn`t feel inconvenienced.” The system is available in all three passenger cabins through telephone ports at every seat. However, Dr. Yeoh said, “we noticed that mostly first- and business-class passengers availed themselves of it.”
The basic e-mail and Web-browsing services will be free until more planes are equipped and a billing system is put in place by about October, he said. Until then, to avoid jamming the server, passengers are limited to 60 kilobytes of outgoing and the same amount of incoming e- mail. Ultimately, he said, “the price will be very much like what an I.S.P. charges on the ground,” for passengers who sign up for personal or corporate accounts, with monthly billing. Per-flight and per-use billing—at about $1 for an e-mail of about 50 words—is also being considered, he said. Within a year to 14 months, Singapore Airlines expects to have 55 more planes equipped with the service, which Dr. Yeoh said he expected would then be operating at data- transmission speeds in excess of 64 kilobytes.
The relatively slow narrow band speeds currently available are a major issue for many airlines. Boeing, Rockwell International and other industry giants are currently developing systems offering high-speed connections; many airlines say they are waiting for the newer broadband technology to become available before outfitting their fleets.
Right now, Dr. Yeoh said of the Singapore Airlines system, “this is probably the best solution” despite its current limitations. “A supplier can give us this solution now, albeit a narrow band one, but with a painless migration path toward a broadband or a wider band tie, and we can bring the benefits to our customers immediately.” Competitors who have signed on with the Tenzing system sounded like reasonably good sports about Singapore Airlines` coup.
“We started to work on this ourselves over a year ago,” said Mary Jersin, a spokeswoman for Cathay Pacific, which plans to introduce its version of the Tenzing e-mail and Web service by late summer, probably on flights from London to Hong Kong, with flights from United States destinations coming later.
“Like any other craze, like beds in premium cabins, once one airline starts to do it the others jump in,” she said. Virgin Atlantic, never a shrinking violet when it comes to publicity about in-flight amenities, announced with great fanfare last month that it was outfitting its planes for e-mail and Web service—by the end of this year.
“We think the competition is good,” said Sharon Pomerantz, a spokeswoman for Virgin, in which Singapore Airlines has a minority stake.
“Of course, they may have it in the air sooner, but when we come out, we`ll be coming out with all the bells and whistles, and we`ll have it for every passenger on board, along with a new in-flight entertainment system with 200 hours of DVD quality video on demand,” she added. “And when you send an e-mail from a Virgin flight, your message will show up at its destination with this address: [email protected]
“What other carrier is going to be as imaginative as that?”