After a flurry of activity just a couple of years ago by a multitude of companies rushing to provide in-flight e-mail and internet services, just two main competitors now remain - Boeing Connexion and Tenzing.

Boeing is gearing up for its first airline trial, with German carrier Lufthansa set to launch a one-aircraft Boeing 747-400 trial on the Frankfurt-Washington route on 15 January. During the three-month trial, Connexion services will be available throughout the aircraft free of charge via a wireless local area network or ethernet connection. There will be four wireless access points in the cabin plus wired points throughout.

The German telecommunications authority has granted spectrum authorisation for the trial, and satellite capacity will come from the Brazilian Estrela do Sol satellite, the Intelsat 709 and Eutelsat's IIF4 satellite.

Lufthansa will use the trial to find out about customer acceptance and user needs, with the airline intending to equip its long-haul fleet of up to 80 aircraft, including Airbus types, from late 2003, says Burkhard Wigger, Lufthansa's general manager of onboard internet. "Passengers demand broadband connectivity while on the move," he adds.

A month later, British Airways will launch a three-month trial of Connexion on a single 747-400 operating between London Heathrow and New York JFK. BA will use the trial to assess whether to equip its long-haul fleet and determine how much passengers would pay for the services. They will be charged a flat rate of £20 ($31) in the trial. The UK followed Germany in granting approval to use radio frequencies for the trial in July.

Boeing recently secured Japan Airlines (JAL) as a customer. The carrier does not plan to trial the services, but has signed a letter of intent to install Connexion on 10 long-haul aircraft plus additional options. The agreement is expected to be finalised by the end of this year, but is most likely to result in the first aircraft being operational in the first quarter of 2004 on routes between Japan and Europe. JAL plans to offer Connexion throughout the aircraft in wired and wireless modes, charging $30 per flight sector.

Boeing has not given up on the possibility of its original US customers - American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines - returning to the Connexion customer fold. The three carriers pulled out of a deal to become equity partners in the venture following the 11 September downturn. Boeing still has a "close relationship" with the three US carriers through its "Working Together" group which comprises 15 airlines defining the Connexion product, says Scott Carson, president of Connexion. "We are convinced they will come back to us as customers," says Carson.

In-flight e-mail and internet is nothing new to Connexion competitor Tenzing, which has offered narrowband in-flight connectivity services since 2000. Customers include Cathay Pacific (whose wholly owned subsidiary Taikoo Aviation Technologies is a 10% shareholder in Tenzing) and Varig. The service provider's customer list was hit badly by the post-11 September crisis, losing Swissair to bankruptcy and Air Canada, Singapore Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines failing to pursue earlier interest and follow up trials.

Tenzing has a number of high-profile backers. Airbus is a 30% owner and Rockwell Collins became the latest investor in the Seattle-based firm, taking a 15% stake at this year's Farnborough air show.

Tenzing and Rockwell are partners in the airframe manufacturer's connectivity initiative, the Airbus In-Flight Information System (AFIS), which is designed to create the connected aircraft, with passengers, cabin and cockpit crew linked to the ground via communication and information services. The first phase of the programme involves the existing e-mail and messaging services via the Inmarsat-3 satellites. Phase two will see the introduction of faster Tenzing services via Inmarsat's recently launched 64kbit/s Swift64 service. Phase three is designed to lead to broadband services, including a live television service. For the third phase, the partners are talking to AirTV, which for a number of years has been working on a dedicated satellite system for in-flight entertainment, but has struggled to secure finance and airline commitment.

Tenzing and Airbus are also allied with communication specialist ARINC and satellite manufacturer Astrium in a consortium designed to deliver broadband connectivity services.

Source: Flight International