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Sunday September 9 5:04 PM ET

Away on Business: You’ve Got Mail

By Michael Conlon

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Some lucky passengers on three airlines, Singapore, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific, are already encountering the future — sending and receiving e-mail from the sky as they cruise to distant destinations.

Best of all, for the immediate future during the system’s test phase, there’s no charge, though that will change by year’s end.

Air Canada offers the service on five Boeing 767s; Singapore began with e-mail on its Los Angeles-Tokyo-Singapore route and expects to have six or seven Boeing 777s and 747s equipped with it by November; and Cathay Pacific currently has one e-mail ready Airbus A330-300 in its fleet.

There are slight differences in the hardware being used by those airlines but the software for all three was developed by Seattle-based Tenzing Communications Inc. That company says it expects to see 50 to 75 commercial airliners from various carriers using its system by the end of 2001.

The e-mail involved here travels to and from the passenger’s laptop via a phone connection at the seat. A server on board sends the data to its destination and receives returning data in periodic bursts.

As a result the passenger is not truly “on line” but the turn-around time for sending a message and getting a reply is not much different than on land, the company says, about 15 minutes at most.


Air Canada was the first in the air with the concept. The system it initially tested is tied to a land-based telephone network, meaning that it can be used only over land. But it will expand that reach to over water, having signed an agreement in June to put the Tenzing system in its entire fleet of 239 planes.

Singapore and Cathay Pacific already have employed satellites for relay, meaning they now have global coverage.

All three carriers are still in the test phase of this concept and have not been charging customers. James Boyd, a spokesman for Singapore, said that airline will start a “modest pricing plan” on October 1, but does not regard the system as a profit center. The other two airlines are also offering the service for free pending pricing decisions later this year.

Tenzing says it believes the charge will wind up being from $4.95 to $9.95 for 24 hours of use.

“It’s a means for passengers to stay connected,” Boyd said. ”Passengers are happiest if we can create an environment where they can experience life on the aircraft the same way they do on the ground,” he added, whether it’s a business traveler or a tech-savvy senior keeping up with the grandchildren.


To use the system passengers must register and download appropriate software. Information on that can be found at The company says more than 10,000 passengers have signed up so far to use e-mail on the three airlines that offer it.

Boyd says that passengers on Singapore, which operates a 71-city route covering 38 countries, can also sign up at boarding lounges in Los Angeles and Singapore or on board where attendants can provide a CD-ROM. The service is available on the carrier in tourist as well as business and first class.

Tenzing says Varig, Virgin Atlantic and Finnair will be offering e-mail with its system by the end of 2001 and SAS plans to try out a wireless in-cabin system that will not require individual telephone connections.

These developments are only the tip of a rapidly advancing information and entertainment revolution that will eventually wire all airline passengers.

American, Delta and United earlier this year formed a partnership with Boeing on a new broad band service that company is developing. It will eventually offer not only e-mail but Internet access, live TV and other services in flight.

The competing service, called Connexion by Boeing, expects to see its first installations in aircraft by the middle of 2002, Boeing and the three airlines have said.

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