Emma Kelly/LONDON

Virgin Atlantic will become the first airline to offer in-flight e-mail and internet-type services to passengers in all cabin classes from late this year following a deal with service provider Tenzing Communications.

The deal includes Virgin's new Airbus A340-600 fleet, which will be outfitted on the assembly line. Sources expect it to pave the way for an alliance with Airbus whereby Tenzing supplies e-mail/internet content for a package of in-flight entertainment (IFE) services to compete with Boeing's Connexion.

Virgin will also be the first carrier to offer the services via the seatback IFE system and on passenger laptop computers. E-mail trials so far provide access on the latter only.

The first aircraft - a Boeing 747-400 - will offer the services in November with the entry into service of the Matsushita System 3000 interactive IFE hardware, followed by roll-out on the rest of the fleet. The services will be integrated into the new System 3000, selected by Virgin for the A340-600s and for retrofit into the current fleet.

Passengers will be able to send and receive e-mails and access cached internet pages from every seat in the aircraft using the Inmarsat satellite system for air-ground communications with an onboard proxy server delivering content to passengers over a cabin local area network.

Tenzing executive vice-president sales and marketing John Wade declines to comment on a possible alliance with Airbus, saying only that the Seattle-based company is "willing and open to work with anyone". Industry sources, however, suggest that an announcement on a closer Tenzing-Airbus relationship could be just weeks away.

Virgin becomes Tenzing's second firm customer after Cathay Pacific Airways, which will introduce services fleetwide in the second quarter. Air Canada will complete its six-month free trial on 15 May, Singapore Airlines started a trial last month, and Scandinavian Airlines will become a test carrier in November.

Source: Flight International