The Internet In-Flight

Flipping open a laptop to surf the Web or check e-mail is a fairly normal thing to do, but doing it while cruising along at 30,000 feet is not.

Connecting to the Internet in-flight will almost undoubtedly become regular practice, though, in just a few years as commercial airlines begin pursuing cost-effective ways to keep their customers connected.

Recently, American Airlines announced it would team with AirCell, a telecommunications company specializing in airborne connectivity, to test a new in-flight service that would use on-the-ground cell towers, rather than satellites, to provide high-speed, broadband Internet service on transcontinental flights in 2008 at a tentative pricetag of around $10 per session.

According to American Airlines spokesman Charley Wilson, 15 of America Airlines' Boeing 767-200 air crafts, used primarily for transcontinental flights, will be outfitted with the system, which includes three antennas outside the plane to receive signals transmitted by AirCell cellular towers across the country.

"I would think that the technology would work such that you could sit down in the airplane and, after it's OK to power up your laptop, go through the subscription cues and use it just like you're using the Internet in a hotel room," Wilson told

Not Like It Was Before

Providing Internet service in-flight on commercial airlines is hardly a new concept, but finding a successful business model has proved difficult.

Lufthansa was among a few other international airlines to team up with a company under Boeing called Connexions to provide a satellite-based Internet service known as FlyNet in 2003.

According to Jennifer Urbaniak, Lufthansa's North America communications manager, customer feedback for the service was extremely positive, but the company was forced to drop the service in December 2006 when Connexions was discontinued due to a lack of interest in the domestic market.

"The demand for [the service] was never in question. Passengers who used it before are missing it," Urbaniak said.

Airline industry expert Robert Mann attributes much of the collapse of the service to a "dead spot" in the airline industry's market in the late '90s.

"It was one of those timing things," Mann told "It was launched in theory in the '90s and would have been part of the next major production cycle. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, traffic and revenue was dropping pretty heavily, and a lot of renewal plans were put on the side."

Mann also believes the equipment for the satellite was expensive and very heavy, cutting into the plane's aerodynamics and requiring more fuel.

According to a FlyNet fact sheet, to help defray the airine's cost, customers using the service would have to ante up nearly $10 per hour or $26.95 for 24 hours of service.

"There are certain uses for which satellite is not ideal and this is one of them," said Mann of transcontinental flights. "It can be done cheaper, lighter and more cost effectively."

Taking to the Ground

The new system, which is cheaper, is also more complex.

According to Phillips, as the plane passes from one on-the-ground tower toward another, a hand-off of the signal between the two towers takes place, providing uninterrupted Internet access to the customer.

For Robert Mann, however, the challenge of providing constant cellular coverage for the entire nation seems to be a daunting task.

"The issue really is that the carrier [AirCell] really needs to build ground facilities," Mann told "Current cell phone towers don't look up. They're not looking for planes. [AirCell] is going to have to have a lot of additional antennas to cover all the dead spots."

AirCell is doing just that, said Phillips, but the company may not be building as many cell towers as one might think.

"When you think about these towers being on the ground and pointing up toward the sky, it [the signal's range] is shaped like a cone," explained Phillips who said that the top of the cone has a diameter of around 250 miles. "So it's possible to cover the whole nation with only 100 cell towers."

As Phillips explained, when full support is completed sometime at the end of next year, in a flight from New York City to Los Angeles, the plane would pick up a little more than 12 different cell tower signals to make the 3,000-plus-mile flight without ever losing the signal.

AirCell is not just constructing all these towers for its test with American Airlines, however. According to Phillips, the company is "talking to every major airline" and is in "advanced talks" with several of them.

'Just a Test'

Such an expansive, complex system has led American Airlines to take a very serious, if extremely cautious, step in the direction of ground-to-plane Internet access.

"It's not a major investment. It's just a fraction of our total fleet," said American Airlines spokesman Charley Wilson. "If this works out, if the technology works well, if the customer usage works out well, if they like the price point, if the test succeeds, then we'd consider deploying this technology to other parts of our fleet."

With so many ifs, Mann believes the airline is going at the correct pace: "By focusing on a particular route and a particular group of aircraft, it's a smart approach."

"If something better comes along, we could look at a different solution," said Wilson.

The system also has a definite "not" -- as in, not capable of coverage for over water flights. That means no Internet access for transatlantic jaunts to Europe or Asia -- both major markets for business travelers who would be among the most likely to use Internet in-flight.

To satisfy that demand other international airlines, including Lufthansa, which has maintained its satellite-ready equipment, are simply looking for other satellite carrier providers.

According to Lufthansa's Urbaniak, the company is in "final stages of negotiations" with a major carrier and hopes to get its service back online by the end of next year.

In the Cabin, in the Future

Mann said he thinks built-in Internet connectivity will be standard on most planes in the future.

"Within five years you'll see the new technology aircrafts with these capabilities hardwired in there," he said. "It's a lot easier to do in the factory."

And while he sees that as a positive effect of the technology, one thing he's not looking forward to is the in-flight telephony that will almost assuredly come with the Internet access.

"There's a fair amount of concern from fellow passengers. Nobody wants to spend the whole flight listening to someone yak into an electronic box," he said. "It's like people driving and talking at the same time too.

"Well, at least they're not flying the plane."