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.

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