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Decisions – Technology – Check in log on

The internet, email and mobile phones are now so integrated into the fabric of business life that the prospect of a long-haul flight without access to these support functions sends business travellers into a mild panic. For others, of course, the thought of escaping into a phone-free, internet-free haven for several hours is a welcome return to a bygone era.

But the days when the aircraft cabin could be viewed as a sanctuary, where a business traveller could remain far removed from anything related to work, are a thing of the past on some of today’s airlines.

There are now two competing services that airlines can buy, both of which offer services for passengers: Boeing’s Connexions and Tenzing Communications’ range of email, instant messaging (IM) and internet products. A number of airlines have already installed one or other of these systems, and more are trialling it each day.

In February 2003, for example, British Airways began a three-month trial of Boeing’s Connexions system. When BA announced the trial, it claimed that the system, which offered on-board email and internet access for passengers in its First, Club World and World Traveller Plus cabins, was “a further step in the next generation of air travel”.

The system allowed passengers to use their laptops and surf the internet in real time. The link was provided via satellite, with Boeing Connexions acting as the internet service provider (ISP) for all participating flights around the globe. Because users were connected via a live link, they were able to send and receive emails with attachments. They could even access their own corporate intranets while cruising at 35,000ft. Commenting on the trial, a BA spokesperson said it had been well received by travellers on its New York to London route – the only route enabled during the pilot.

The spokesperson also said BA was still evaluating the results of the trial. Part of the deliberations involve working out what to charge executives for the service. BA has yet to make any further announcement as to its plans regarding Connexions, but other airlines have already adopted the system.

The first airline to roll out the Connexions service was Lufthansa, which trialled the system at the same time as BA. One of the latest to launch was Japan Airlines (JAL), which announced the Connexions service in December 2004 for passengers flying out of London’s Heathrow airport.

Flight JL402 on 11 December last year was, in fact, the first time that UK passengers leaving Heathrow had real-time internet access for the duration of their flight as a normal commercial service, and not just participants in a trial run. JAL claimed this marked a new era for passengers travelling from London to the Pacific Rim.

According to Charlie Miller, communications director for EMEA at Boeing and Connexions’ London spokesperson, Boeing is forging deals with a number of ISPs, telecos and content providers around the world so that customers will be able to use their existing user names and passwords to gain in-flight internet access.

Tenzing Communications, the other major provider, has taken a different route. It has focused on IM and email services, and has concentrated on internal US routes. Email under this system is not in real time, but is sent from the aircraft to Tenzing’s own base station. From there it is forwarded in the usual way.

However, Tenzing, which can claim Airbus as a sponsor, has recently formed a new company, OnAir, together with SITA and Airbus. The three companies announced their intention to form OnAir at the Farnborough, Hampshire, Air Show in July last year and announced the launch of OnAir in the US in September 2004.

The aim is to provide voice and data connectivity services to air travellers on both long- and short-haul routes around the world. The service provides in-seat telephony (but not mobile telephony at this stage), in-seat SMS texting, and travellers can use their own laptops to write and receive emails and to use IM.

From this year, OnAir intends to include access to corporate Virtual Private Networks and internet browsing capabilities, which will make it a full rival to Connexions. Mobile telephony is expected to be available from 2006. The Federal Communications Commission in the US is currently reviewing the safety of mobile phones and is expected to come forward with a relaxation of the current ban on in-flight usage either this year or next.

Miller points out that terrestrial mobile networks are not suited to air travel because of the speed the plane moves across the mobile base station cells. However, with the aid of satellite telephony, an airborne service is perfectly feasible. Expect to hear the phone in the seat next to yours ring shortly.

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