Every good computer idea is born twice, it seems. The first time to a bunch of hoopla, and then, after a period of disappointment, it's born again when execs understand it. Maybe the same is true for in-flight Web and E-mail access.
Lufthansa and British Airways are preparing to test systems that would let passengers flying across the Atlantic log on at speeds comparable to DSL connections. Passengers on Lufthansa's Dulles-to-Frankfurt route are expected to be the first to use such a service, during a three-month test beginning in January. British Airways plans a test shortly after Lufthansa's begins.
Domestically, Verizon is rolling out a service that lets passengers on Continental Airlines send instant messages on connections as fast as 56 Kbps. The service, called JetConnect, is available on a dozen planes now, a spokeswoman says, and should be available on 100 planes by year's end. The jets carry a server that periodically updates wirelessly, providing news, sports, destination information, and games to notebook computers plugged into JetConnect. Plans are under way to boost JetConnect to DSL speeds.
British Airways and Lufthansa will use Boeing Co.'s Connexion broadband service, which is designed to patch passengers into the Internet via satellite in real time. If Connexion sounds familiar, it should: It was one of the last drops to fall after the Internet bubble burst. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a Boeing spokesman says, all of the U.S. carriers--some of whom had talked about some sort of related equity partnership with Boeing--pulled back rather than spend money on the up-front costs of installing the service. But some overseas airlines, including Lufthansa and British Airways, pressed on.
Boeing believes that, particularly during long flights, executives are drumming their fingers waiting to reconnect with business. The spokesman says the company's market research indicates that businesspeople will pay a flat fee of up to $35 on a seven-hour flight for Connexion. The service would create a 20-Mbyte-per-second, four-channel pipe to each plane. Those channels could be divvied up between flight-crew and passenger needs in any way an airline wants. The typical throughput a passenger would experience, according to Boeing, would be 256 Kbps.
Flat fees, in fact, look like the way this type of service is likely to go. Prices differ greatly, but Lufthansa, Verizon, and Boeing all more or less dismissed per-minute and per-byte price plans.
Of course, there's no way to know if this is onboard online's rebirth. The picture looked pretty good 18 months ago. Boeing foresaw 1,600 planes full of surfers. The slightly humbled aerospace company now is waiting to see how Connexion is received on just one plane traversing the Atlantic for three months.