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Giving business travelers the onboard connectivity they have long sought, Australian airline Qantas says it will begin offering wireless e-mail and Internet access on its new fleet of Airbus A380 jets, which will go into service August 2008.
The connections for mobile handsets and laptop computers will be offered as part of a comprehensive "next generation in-flight entertainment system" that includes digital-quality big-screen monitors in all cabins, audio and video on demand with 100 movies, 500 audio CDs, audio books, and computer games, plus an external camera that will offer a pilot's eye view of flights.
"Customers in all classes will also be able to stay connected with in seat e-mail and internet access or using their personal laptops to connect to a wireless network," said Qantas executive general manager John Borghetti, adding "There has never been anything like this onboard a commercial aircraft."
The Qantas announcement follows a series of setbacks and delays for in-flight Internet access, brought on by technological hurdles and high initial prices.
Last year Boeing abandoned its highly publicized Connexion in-flight wireless service, marking the final blow for the six-year effort for Internet access on board Boeing airliners that was beleaguered from the start. The Chicago-based aviation giant invested as much as $1 billion to develop Connexion, which at its onset, in 2000, was seen as a major revenue-generator for the airlines and for Boeing. Predictions of eventual revenues from on-board Internet service ranged as high as $25 billion a year.
International carriers such as Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, and Singapore Airlines signed deals to offer their passengers the service, but the big U.S. carriers declined to participate. Original Connexion development partners American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines, pulled out of the project within months of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Over the last six years, we have invested substantial time, resources and technology in Connexion by Boeing," Boeing chairman and CEO Jim McNerney said in announcing the in-flight access service's demise. "Regrettably, the market for this service has not materialized as had been expected."
Many observers disagreed, arguing that the demand for such services is strong but that Connexion was too pricey: At a time when Wi-Fi access in many airport terminals is free, Connexion cost $10 for the first hour or $27 for 24 hours.
Prices for the Qantas service, which will be provided by OnAir, a joint venture between Airbus and SITA, the Geneva-based provider of telecommunications services for the commercial aviation industry, have not been announced. Last year, in a presentation to U.K. investors, OnAir CEO George Cooper said that his company had landed an unnamed customer for in-flight data services. "As well as in-flight GSM, their offering to passengers will comprise seatback instant messaging at a price of $5 for unlimited use throughout the flight," Cooper added. "Web e-mail will cost $8 per flight, with attachments extra, and there will be a measure of Internet access. Laptop users would have Wi-Fi access to the Internet and VPNs."
Qantas has also not specified exactly how the "measure of Internet access" will be provided onboard airliners, but OnAir has previously said that in-flight data service will be based on satellite company Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband 432Kbit/sec-per-channel service.
As Dan Warne, writing on the Australian technology Web site APCmag.com, points out, that would "equate to sub-dialup speeds per passenger unless the aircraft uses multiple satellite channels at once."