Karen Walker/ATLANTA

NEW TECHNOLOGIES are bringing new ways of entertaining and informing passengers while they fly, as well as helping them to use their time productively.

The resulting changes in services, which might routinely be offered to passengers in the near future, could have most impact initially in the USA, where air travel is regarded as merely a means of getting from point to point and "luxuries", such as cocktails and meals are rarely offered or expected, except in the first-class cabins. Airlines seeking to distinguish themselves from their competitors, therefore, may find the new products enticing because they take into the sky what people are used to having in their homes - live television and power outlets for computers - and probably charge for them.

An experiment being conducted at Delta Airlines is being watched with interest by other carriers. Delta has equipped one of its aircraft, with a live satellite-television system, as well as power hook-ups at individual seats, to allow passengers to plug in their laptop computers. The trials of each system, expected to last about six months, will monitor the performance of the equipment and its popularity among passengers. If all goes well, Hughes-Avicom, which is supplying the DirecTV television service, and Olin Aerospace, which is providing its EmPower in-seat power-supply systems, may win longer contracts.

Delta has chosen its Spirit of Atlanta Boeing 767 - a gift from employees, which is now painted in a Centennial Olympics' celebration livery - as the testbed. Until early 1997, the aircraft will be flown on a variety of short and long routes from Atlanta to destinations across the USA. The routes will enable Delta to monitor customer demand and television signal reception on different types of journey. From 1 September, passengers' opinions of the systems have been canvassed. "We're leading the industry in providing passengers with what they want," says Delta's director of brand management, Judy Jordan. "Our research tells us that, when our customers are not working in flight, they want to be informed and entertained."

Initially, Delta has selected three television channels for its DirecTV service and they are being shown throughout the first and economy class cabins via overhead monitors. Ultimately, it is understood, the system will be provided via individual seat monitors and offer a choice of 12 channels. On longer flights, Delta is showing CNN News in the morning, the Discovery channel through mid-day, and Nickelodeon in the evening. "We chose those three because we wanted to test a variety of programming, and this allows us to inform, educate and then entertain," says Delta's manager of onboard programmes and services, Joe Leach. The entertainment programmes are shown in lieu of feature films, with economy-class passengers renting $4 headsets to listen to this section. On flights lasting less than 2h 35min, CNN's Headline News is shown free of charge.

California-based Hughes-Avicom is the one-stop provider of the live-television package. As systems' provider and integrator, it has assembled the package of its own equipment, the Datron Transco antenna and the DirecTV satellite service. The company is also responsible for maintenance and support of the system. Alan Pellegrini, Hughes-Avicom's director of direct-broadcast systems, says that there is "significant interest" in the system from other US airlines as well as strong interest from European and Latin American airlines for an international version. Market research has indicated that the prospect of an in-flight live television service scores highly with American passengers, who especially like the idea of being able to watch a major sporting event and who would be prepared to pay for the privilege.

Deltas' own passenger surveys also indicate a high level of interest in an in-seat power-supply system, and early customer reactions to EmPower seem to bear that out. Comment cards now being returned to flight attendants are overwhelmingly positive, says Delta's Leach. Olin's marketing manager, John Wade, confirms that worldwide interest in the product has been "amazing" since Delta started the trial. The name of a second US customer is to be announced in October, and Redmond, Washington-based Olin is hopeful that this will be for a full production fit.

Another new service, which will become available to airline passengers this year, is in-flight gambling. British Airways, Singapore Airlines and Swissair will lead the way in this, each with gaming software from different US-based suppliers - InterGame, Interactive Entertainment Limited (IEL) and Interactive Flight Technologies, respectively. No US airlines will be providing this service in the near term, however, because US Department of Transportation laws forbid gambling over the USA, or in any aircraft flying into or out of the USA. There are mixed feelings among international airlines as to whether gambling is desirable, but the potential revenue is attractive.

IEL's managing director Gordon Stevenson admits, that most are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. "There is an enormous amount of interest, especially in Asia, but everyone is waiting to see the results of an operating experience. Everyone wants to be first to be number two," he says.

Source: Flight International