Airlines ramp up systems that let you surf in the sky

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In the fierce competition to woo passengers, airlines are racing to provide on-board Internet access with broadband speeds.

US airlines are currently testing the idea, with a full roll-out of Web-related services expected no sooner than 2003.

At present, passengers on most flights can check e-mails using in-flight telephones provided by companies including GTE Airfone and AT&T. But the snail's pace of sending and receiving e-mail, along with an average cost of $2 per minute, make the process pricey and laborious.

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For now, it remains to be seen whether future online services will offer just e-mail or include a wide range of features including live television programming and Web surfing.

Later this year, Boeing will roll out its Connexion service, allowing all passengers to access the Web, send e-mail, and watch TV through their personal laptops or PDAs. The aircraft manufacturer says the service will probably cost less than $30 an hour.

Travelers can wistfully hope such services will be free - like in-flight audio - but these services are expected to provide an additional revenue stream for cash-strapped airlines.

Several foreign carriers are already phasing in limited Web service.

Virgin Atlantic was one of the first with access to e-mail and the Internet through seat-back television systems or personal laptops. Air Canada offers the service on some flights, but since its system uses ground relay stations, it is not available during over-the-water flights.

Asian carriers Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are introducing onboard e-mail and Internet services, which will eventually be available on all of their wide-bodied aircraft.

The foreign carriers charge either a flat fee or several dollars for each e-mail. US carriers are expected to charge $10 to $30 for an hour of service, or a per-e-mail fee. Still to be sorted out is whether passengers will be able to use their own laptops or PDAs, rent laptops from the airline, or use in-seat entertainment screens.

Cruise lines are also sailing the Internet wave. Most cruise ships now feature Internet cafes, charging an average of $1 per minute, and newer ships are being wired for in-room Internet access.

Royal Caribbean is promoting its "Cyber-Cabin" with unlimited in-stateroom access through a personal laptop for $100 per week, or $50 for shorter cruises.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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