All US flights will have e-mail in 2004

E-mail services will be available on all domestic flights in North America before the end of next year, according to Alan...

E-mail services will be available on all domestic flights in North America before the end of next year, according to Alan McGinnis, the chief executive officer of Tenzing Communications, which provides technology and services for in-flight messaging.

United Air Lines announced a deal with Tenzing last week to provide e-mail on around 400 of its North American domestic flights by the end of this year. The service piggybacks on United's JetConnect service, offered with Verizon Communications, and is priced at $15.98 for up to 2Kbytes of data, and 10 cents for each additional kilobyte.

Tenzing will announce similar deals with other airlines in the coming months.

Passengers already can send e-mail on some United flights by connecting their laptops to the existing JetConnect service. Sending e-mail that way is expensive, however, and JetConnect was not designed for transmitting data, according to McGinnis. JetConnect with Email, the enhanced service being rolled out by United, is supposed to address those issues.

Verizon's network allows for a data connection speed of 9.6Kbps (bits per second) in North America, McGinnis said. Tenzing's main rival is Boeing's Connexion by Boeing, which allows passengers to surf the web via a high-speed broadband connection as well as send and receive e-mail. Lufthansa said last month that it would equip its fleet of about 80 long-haul aircraft with the service beginning early next year.

Airbus SAS, one of Boeing's chief rivals, is an investor in Tenzing, along with Cathay Pacific Airways and Rockwell Collins.

McGinnis admitted that broadband services will dominate the skies eventually, but he argued that Tenzing's service is the best option for cash-starved airlines because the service requires only a software upgrade. Connexion by Boeing requires airlines to fit their planes with equipment to provide the broadband connection.

Tenzing hopes to make its service even faster by piggybacking on top of new, faster communications equipment which will be fitted to aircraft as standard in the near future.

Services outside North America were likely take longer to implement, he said, because of the time involved in brokering deals, regulatory issues and other concerns.

McGinnis downplayed the impact of financial hardships at the airlines, which were exacerbated after the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001. The airlines need a way to retain customers and lure new ones and services such as e-mail can help them to do that, he said.

James Niccolai writes for IDG News Service

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