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Airline travelers to go online while en route

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Still not widely available

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MONTREAL, Quebec (CNN) -- Ladies and gentlemen, start your laptops.

Just seconds after the flight crew of Air Canada 413 announced that it was OK to use approved electronic devices, 16 people did things they'd never been able to do before in the air: They sent and received e-mails, and surfed the Internet.

"It's not exactly like being in your office but we've tried to make it as close as we possibly could given the constraints of technology on an aircraft," said Alan Pellegrini from his first class seat.

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Pellegrini is chief operating officer of Tenzing, the company that's developing the onboard Internet service for Air Canada and Cathay Pacific Airlines.

During the 54-minute flight from Montreal's Dorval airport to Toronto, the first class cabin was filled with reporters and photographers testing the still-evolving technology.

"I was pretty impressed," said Annalise Bomenblit, one of the reporters who logged on. Bomenblit is the editor of the Corporate Travel Newsletter.

"Road warriors are really an important market for the airlines and the most lucrative customers. They want the comfort and familiarity of Internet access," she said after the flight.

"Anyone familiar with dial-up access at home or in a hotel would be comfortable using this service," said Pellegrini. "We simply plug a connector in like a phone socket at home, but instead of dialing up your Internet service provider, you're dialing into an ISP on the aircraft, essentially, it's the Tenzing ISP."

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But Tenzing engineers on board were the first to admit getting connected to the onboard server was not as simple as a terrestrial dial-up access.

Different operating systems and myriad laptop configurations kept several engineers busy before and during the flight. Air Canada plans testing the beta version of its product on five of its 767-200 aircraft until May 15 to work out improvements for the inflight connection.

Hugues Simard, vice president of development for Quebecor New Media, briefly surfed the cached sites on the Tenzing server.

"I spend a lot of time on airlines," Simard said. "Sometimes I need to get information, articles that were written on certain things, and if I get it while I'm flying it would save me a lot of time."

But he says the system will have to be simple.

"I don't consider myself to be a techie at all. Half the time I can't figure out how the configurations work," he said.

Air Canada says surveys of its frequent business travelers over the past two years puts Internet and real-time e-mail access at the top of the list of customer requests.

Still not widely available

During the testing period, access to the inflight service is free. There's no decision yet on cost when the service becomes more widely available. Pellegrini says it's likely there will be two tiers of fees. One would be geared for the "road warrior" who's constantly traveling. For less frequent fliers, a per-flight fee of perhaps $15 is being discussed.

Boeing is also developing inflight Internet connections. Known as "Connexion by Boeing," the service will provide high speed, two-way Internet and live television services to aircraft in flight.

"The key technology behind it is the proprietary phased array receive and transmit antenna that Boeing has been developing for some time," said Scott Carson, president of Connexion by Boeing.

"This antenna allows you to track the satellites to bring the signal onto the airplane, but the real technology breakthrough has been using that same technology to bring the broadband data off the airplane."

Boeing officials say they are in talks with about 30 airlines worldwide to provide the service. While technicians from the company have tested the e-mail and Internet connections, there's no date set yet for passengers to try out the system.

Spokesman Terrance Scott says the Boeing service will be much more like the speedy connection most people have at work than the slower phone connections many have at home.

And he says while competitors will have a limited number of cached Web sites, any Internet site can be accessed with their technology. Installations of the Boeing technology are expected to begin on commercial airliners later this year, with service on North American routes.

Some frequent fliers say they cherish those hours aboard a plane because it's one place the boss can't reach them. But Boeing's Carson says it also gives passengers a choice.

CNN's Technology Correspondent Rick Lockridge contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Online travel takes off, but needs loyalty
January 8, 2001
Airlines vie for fastest connections
October 6, 2000
Hotels, airlines scramble to satisfy business travelers
August 7, 2000

RELATED SITES:
The Boeing Company
  • Connexion
Air Canada
Cathay Pacific Airlines


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