Airlines Scurry to 'Wire Up'

Laurent Belsie

Passengers may soon find a communications center right at their seat It used to be that you got away from it all when you left the office. Then technology changed, and the home became an office. So you drove around to get away from it all, until the car phone and the portable computer. Then you hopped a plane. Oh sure, there were those airline phones. For what it cost to dine at a fancy French restaurant you could mumble hello to the kids from 30,000 feet. But even the family didn't expect that kind of treatment. And anyway, no one could reach you for a few blessed hours. But those days of flying freedom are numbered. Major airlines are scrambling to wire up the airplane seat. Games, movies-on-demand, communications gear - you name it - are being crammed in somewhere between the seat back and the flight-attendant call button. This is progress, I suppose. But I keep wondering if people want to be ''wired'' to their airline seat. It seems constricting, somehow, like having a seat belt pulled a little too tight. Several airlines are conducting trials. British Airways is scheduled to outfit a Boeing 747 with an interactive entertainment system in late December. Singapore Airlines has three 747s equipped with personal entertainment on board. Then there's United Airlines. United is the first airline to fly the all-new Boeing 777. This plane is built from the ground up with the idea that passengers deserve to be wired up. United's new entertainment system, built by GEC-Marconi, offers a bevy of choices. Passengers can: * Pick from two movie channels. They're displayed on a 5-1/4-inch screen, one to a passenger. In coach class, the screens are embedded into the back of the seat ahead of you, just above the tray table. In first class, they're stored in the armrest, ready to pop out at a comfortable viewing angle. * View news and entertainment shows on six other channels. * Choose from 20 audio channels - which isn't much different from other airplanes except that the sound is digital, with the clarity of an audio CD. This is just the beginning. When GEC-Marconi works out the bugs in its system, United passengers will be able to play up to 50 video games on the screen. They'll each have a telephone, cradled in the armrest, which they can program to receive calls from the ground. If calling Des Moines from Row 12 is unappealing, how about talking to the passenger in Row 10? The new system will allow people to call seat-to-seat. A fax? No problem. There will be a handy jack to plug in your portable fax machine. According to one company source, the system isn't fully installed yet because it works too slowly when everyone is using it at once. Why are airlines flocking to the technology? It occupies passengers' time, for one thing. ''It's part of a lot of different investments to make the time in the aircraft and the time in the airport as smooth as possible,'' says Margaret Vodopia, spokeswoman for British Airways. ''It's all about giving people as much power as we can.'' When its test system goes in, passengers will be able to check the gate their arriving at, make hotel and car reservations, and maybe even be able to shop on-line and pick up their merchandise when they arrive at the airport. The system could also bring in additional revenue. British Airways plans to provide most of the entertainment free in first class, while coach passengers will have to pay for most of the services. Ominously, the airline plans to offer gambling in which passengers could win the price of their ticket or even more by playing on-line roulette or blackjack or gambling on the outcome of recorded horse races. The United States doesn't permit gambling over its airspace but the plane will also be flying to Africa and the Far East. There are glitches, especially in maintenance. On a recent stopover at Washington's Dulles Airport after a flight from London, a new United 777 was crawling with personnel. No longer does the airplane just have to get cleaned up and resupplied; technicians now have to ensure that the entertainment units work. For example, GEC-Marconi personnel at Dulles have to replace an average 10 seat-side control panels a day. Passengers, presumably children, pick off the soft rubber over the button to turn on the overhead light. Some of the screens have been broken. ''You'd be amazed at what some people do,'' sighs Joseph Flak, United's departure coordinator at Dulles. Northwest Airlines pulled out its interactive games completely after repeated breakdowns caused passenger complaints. And the technology is expensive. The new Boeing 777s don't come cheap. Neither does the retrofitting of older planes. Singapore Airlines says it costs $3.5 million to install an entertainment system in one of its Boeing 747s - not to mention the three weeks of downtime while the plane is being worked on. Airline officials say that long-haul airplanes may get such systems relatively quickly. But the older, short-hop planes may never get upgraded. So passengers traveling from, say, Boston to New York may not see the in-flight entertainment systems until their airline decides to buy new airplanes. Despite these challenges, airlines report their passenger tests have been positive so far. ''They love it,'' says Ms. Vodopia of British Airways. So expect to see the technology spread. Me? I just plan to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight - provided, of course, that little Johnny can sit still while he creates intergalactic chaos on the video screen next to mine.

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