While a few carriers have identified broadband Connexion services as the answer to their passengers' in-flight connectivity needs, others are taking the narrowband path through in-flight e-mail service provider Tenzing and satellite communication (satcom) links already installed on their aircraft.

Despite a rash of airline commitments and trials before the US terrorist attacks in September 2001, few airlines are offering passengers in-flight e-mail - more interest is being shown in testing in-flight connectivity through short messaging service (SMS).

Tenzing has just two customers - Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic.

Despite encouraging trials of Tenzing's e-mail service, Air Canada and Varig have shelved connectivity plans as they deal with the downturn. Finnair dropped its plans; Swissair was lost to bankruptcy; Scandinavian Airlines dropped its wireless Tenzing plans to test Connexion by Boeing, and Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic shelved fleetwide Tenzing e-mail and internet programmes in favour of less ambitious SMS.

Cathay is the only airline offering Tenzing's e-mail service. The airline also happens to be a part owner of Tenzing, with Cathay subsidiary Taikoo Aviation Technologies paying $10 million for a 10% stake in 2001, while airframer Airbus owns 30% and avionics manufacturer Rockwell Collins purchased 15% last year.

Cathay's entire widebody fleet of 68 aircraft will be outfitted by year-end.

Installations comprise the General Dynamics' Empower in-seat power supply and its Emport USB data connection to the onboard server, with communication service provided via Arinc.

Unlike other carriers that have tested the Tenzing system, Cathay's onboard infrastructure comprises a high-speed network rather than operating through basic telephony. This means there are no limits to the number of passengers that can use the system simultaneously and there is "a solid expansion path as broadband services are implemented", says Cathay.

The service is available in first and business classes and the first 10 rows of the economy class cabin, with passengers able to both send and receive e-mail from their laptops after they have downloaded the Tenzing software on the ground. The system supports the standard POP3 e-mail protocol and some corporate e-mail systems such as Exchange 5.5 via Outlook Web Access.

The real test of passenger demand will come when Cathay starts charging. To date, in-flight e-mail has been free, but Cathay plans to charge $9.95 per flight to access e-mail headers and decide what to upload and then 60¢ per kilobyte to send and receive messages.

The airline has faced challenges already. Certification flights involved 100-plus laptops operating in all manner of configurations, sending and receiving e-mails, to verify there was no interference with flight systems. Cathay says: "Passenger response has been good, and pretty much in line with our expectations - bearing in mind that we have not started our official marketing promotion yet."

The main target for the service is the frequent business traveller, but Cathay adds that "tech fans of all sorts have also tried the service".

Many have questioned the need for in-flight e-mail when the people you are e-mailing are asleep. Cathay, however, says this "non-synchronous communications" has not put passengers off and there is no clear pattern when passengers use the service most.

The airline is already looking ahead to upgrading the service and is investigating Inmarsat's recently introduced Swift64 higher speed satellite communication service as a way of speeding up off-aircraft communication, as well as SMS service.

"Currently we offer service to e-mail addresses only, but we are considering the possibilities offered by SMS as the system has plenty of flexibility," the airline says. "Broadband is obviously the way to go, but we need to get full worldwide coverage and at the right price," it adds.

Last year fellow Asian carrier SIA became a trial Tenzing customer, testing the narrowband e-mail service on one Boeing 747-400, operating between Singapore and Tokyo Narita and Los Angeles. But it later dropped the service, citing a change in Tenzing's business plan. SIA is now testing an in-seat messaging service in conjunction with its in-flight entertainment (IFE) system supplier Matsushita Avionics Systems (MAS) and satellite communication provider Sita.

MAS provides the airborne solution, with the service incorporated in the System 3000 IFE unit, with passengers writing and sending messages on the personal IFE monitors and handsets installed at every seat. Sita provides the satcom link to the ground, the ground messaging infrastructure, customer billing and customer service.

A one-aircraft technical trial was launched on a Boeing 777-200ER last August, with plans to equip 10 777s and 747s as soon as possible, once the service has been "fine-tuned" and "technical requirements" between SIA and MAS have been settled, says SIA, declining to elaborate.

The 10-aircraft commercial trial will run for a couple of months, but the airline is not close to that yet, it says. In-seat messaging is available free of charge, but the airline is considering charging once it gets beyond the commercial trial.

The service is available in both cabins of the 777 and allows passengers to send SMS and short e-mail messages - up to 160 characters - to mobile telephones and e-mail addresses. Currently only send functionality is available, but SIA says it is working with its partners to introduce a reply service as well.

Sita director of passenger and cabin communications Veronique Blanc says the communication service provider has enabled the reply capability in its ground infrastructure. "Other SMS projects are in progress with other customers that include the deployment of this capability around mid-2003," she says, although she declines to identify them.

SIA affiliate Virgin has also opted for the SMS approach after dropping plans to use install Tenzing e-mail and internet. Last August the carrier launched SMS with IFE system supplier MAS, communication provider Arinc and Tenzing. It already charges $2.50 per message.

The SMS service was originally pioneered by satcom service provider Stratos, which still supplies it to Austrian Airlines, Lauda Air and Swiss, with a charge of $2 for each message.

Source: Flight International