Friday, December 7, 2007

Some Airlines to Offer In-Flight Internet Service

Passengers may soon hear a new in-flight announcement: “You can now log on.”

Starting next week and over the next few months, several American airlines will test Internet service on their planes.

On Tuesday, JetBlue Airways will begin offering a free e-mail and instant messaging service on one aircraft, while American Airlines, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines plan to offer a broader Web experience in the coming months, probably priced at about $10 a flight.

“I think 2008 is the year when we will finally start to see in-flight Internet access become available, but I suspect the rollout domestically will take place in a very measured way,” said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research. But “in a few years time, if you get on a flight that doesn’t have Internet access, it will be like walking into a hotel room that doesn’t have TV.”

The airlines’ goal is to turn their planes into the equivalent of a wireless hot spot once the aircraft reaches its cruising altitude. It will not be available on takeoff and landing.

Virgin America even plans to link the technology to its seat-back entertainment system, enabling passengers who are not traveling with laptops or smartphones to send messages on a flight. The network can also potentially be used for communications within the plane, like food and drink orders — something Virgin America already does with its seat-back system.

While the technology could allow travelers to make phone calls over the Internet, most carriers say they have no plans to allow voice communications. Many travelers find the prospect of phone calls much less palatable than having a seatmate quietly browsing e-mail.

Onboard phone calls are “one of those ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ types of technologies,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “The last thing you want is to be in a crowded tube at 35,000 feet for two or three hours with some guy going on and on about his trip to Vegas.”

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