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In the year 2010, on a bright summer morning high above the South Pacific, you might find yourself flying nonstop from Sydney to New York aboard an Airbus A-380 super-jumbo jet. As a flight attendant clears your breakfast tray, you pull out your laptop, connect it to a data port on the arm of your seat, and within minutes, you’ve downloaded new e-mail, had a brief videophone chat with your business partner in San Francisco and used an e-commerce Web site to deliver a birthday bouquet to your mother-in-law in Manitoba. At the moment, Net service on commercial aircraft is generally limited to slow and costly dial-up connections via seat-back phone links. But as engineers chip away at the problem of affordable in-flight Internet access, at least two carriers, Air Canada and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways, are moving forward with a service that will bring air travelers closer to broadband connectivity on the fly. The service, offered by Seattle startup Tenzing Communications, is already available on five Air Canada planes and will start rolling out aboard Cathay Pacific passenger jets in the second quarter of this year. To use Tenzing’s system, passengers need a portable computer equipped with a standard Ethernet adapter. Once connected, passengers can use common Web and e-mail programs such as Netscape Communications, Eudora and Microsoft Outlook to send and receive messages or browse a library of Web pages cached on an onboard server. The stored Web content — which includes selected news and information sources and online shopping services — is updated periodically via wireless links to communications satellites or, in some cases, to less expensive ground-based transceivers. Cathay plans to provide data ports and power hook-ups for all seats in first and business class, as well as for a limited number of seats in economy. Access fees, the company says, will be offered on a subscription or a pay-as-you-go basis. Tenzing may be the first to market, but it isn’t the only contender. At last fall’s Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, Boeing exhibited its Connexion system, which could make live in-flight Internet access commercially viable as early as the beginning of next year. As with Tenzing’s system, Connexion will link Ethernet-ready laptops to an onboard server using a hardwired local area network — but a pair of antennae mounted on top of the aircraft will provide a constant two-way satellite link to the Internet. Boeing’s system is designed to deliver real-time access to the Web and much faster transmission of e-mail than Tenzing currently offers. But while Tenzing already has the ability to serve transoceanic flights, Boeing’s system will initially be limited to flights over North America, pending future expansion of the network. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has joined forces with aviation electronics firm Rockwell Collins to develop a digital in-flight entertainment system that will include broadband Internet access. In addition to live television and recorded audio and video programming, the satellite-based In Flight Network promises full connectivity for Web browsing and e-mail transmission using laptops and PDAs. The companies say they hope to offer the service to airlines by the end of this year. Both News Corp and Boeing have yet to land any solid customers, but Tenzing says it has signed memorandums of understanding with six major carriers to test or implement the technology, including Air Canada, Cathay and Singapore Airlines (which is also considering a similar product built by Honeywell). Industry watchers will be keeping a close eye on Tenzing and Cathay Pacific, focusing on hardware and software problems, broken satellite links and compatibility problems with passenger laptops. No matter how thoroughly the systems are tested, in-flight networks have the potential to become a customer service nightmare, with travelers appealing to busy flight attendants for tech support whenever they’re having trouble logging on. “The companies responsible for devising these systems need to understand that there are thousands and thousands of people that have yet to become computer savvy,” says Andrea Estelle, a 32-year veteran flight attendant for Continental Airlines. If the systems are not bug-free, she adds, “it will become just one more problem to deal with, to add to the long list we already carry on our shoulders.” As Association of Flight Attendants President Patricia A. Friend puts it, “Flight attendants should not be confused with tech-support professionals.” A reasonable concern, but given the potential profits from use fees, advertising revenue and e-commerce, it’s only a matter of time before high-altitude surfing will be as familiar to airline passengers as mediocre meals, second-rate movies and lost luggage. Copyright � 2001 The Industry Standard Thisarticle originally appeared inTech Traveler , a weekly e-mail newsletterpublished byThe Industry Standard . Free subscriptions are available at www.standardservices.com.

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