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E-mail at 30,000 Feet

After three years of false starts and failed promises, in-flight e-mail is coming to a plane near you. Originally launched in 2001 amid great fanfare, the revolutionary service stalled at takeoff, a victim of post-9/11 economic woes and uncertainty about what kind of product travelers actually wanted. Now several major American and foreign carriers are moving forward with tests and rollouts across their fleets.

Just as in 2001, there are two competing providers of the technology. On one side is Tenzing, an independent company partially owned by Airbus; its service is currently available on all domestic Continental and United flights and will be on every Cathay Pacific plane by the end of the year. US Airways is also beginning to install the service on its fleet. Tenzing's chief rival, Boeing's Connexion service, will begin appearing on Lufthansa and SAS planes this year (they will have equipped 88 and 11, respectively, by the end of 2005); Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and All Nippon Airways have signed on for the service as well, but have not yet finalized installation schedules.

Both Tenzing and Connexion allow passengers to send and receive e-mail from their regular accounts—you register either in advance or once on board—but that's where the similarities end (see below). On most planes, Tenzing's system makes use of existing phone or seat jacks, which means access may be restricted to certain classes or seats, and users' laptops need only a working modem. Connexion's service is always wireless and available throughout the plane to anyone whose laptop is Wi-Fi-enabled; some planes also have wired connections for passengers with Ethernet cards. Most significant, Tenzing users can only e-mail—with a 5- to 20-minute delay, depending on location and the number of passengers logged on—while Connexion users have real-time, high-speed access to the Internet. Tenzing does cost less to use, however: typically from $10 to $20 per flight, compared with about $35 for Connexion.

Clearly, Connexion is the more ad- vanced product, but Tenzing is making advances: at press time, Dubai-based carrier Emirates announced that its new Airbus 340-500 planes would carry Tenzing's e-mail service, and that it would be both wired and wireless. Tenzing says it may offer real-time e-mailing and full, high-speed Internet access someday, but only if and when demand for them warrants the additional development costs. "This provides what people really need and are willing to pay for right now," says Michael Pinckney, Tenzing's vice president of marketing.

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at technology research firm Forrester Research, disagrees. A Forrester report from the summer of 2003 found that one-third of frequent travelers would welcome onboard e-mail or Internet access, and that most of those who are interested would be willing to pay more to have the most comprehensive technology available. "Our data indicate that people want an entire Internet experience," Harteveldt says.

Whether the airlines are willing to foot the bill to equip their fleets is another question. Connexion is expensive to install, costing up to $700,000 per plane. Because Tenzing's system can make use of existing technology, "the process is much cheaper," says Jared Blank, former Jupiter Research analyst and editor of Online Travel Review. "And there's a much faster turnaround time."

With Tenzing service offered on Boeing jets, and Connexion launching on Airbus planes, the dominance of one service over the other doesn't appear to depend on the changing fortunes of the two aviation giants, although Blank suggests that the rivals might offer discounted installation of their preferred product on new planes. At any rate, Harteveldt predicts that in a few years comprehensive Internet access will be an airline must-have. "With entertainment and amenities being cut, the airlines will have to figure out some other way to keep passengers happy," he says. "High-speed access will have to become as common on planes as it is today in hotels."

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