Boeing signs more airlines for in-flight Internet

Japan Airlines System Corp. (JAL) and The Boeing Co. signed a deal in Tokyo on Wednesday afternoon to install the latter’s Connexion by Boeing in-flight Internet system into some JAL aircraft from 2004, both companies said. The deal came a day after Singapore Airlines Ltd. (SAA) signed a letter of intent with Boeing to install the system.

The deal with JAL, one of Japan’s two major airlines and the first Asian carrier to make a firm deal to install the system, should see the service become available on routes between Japan and London from December 2004, the carrier said. After that the service is expected to be expanded to other routes between Japan and Europe and Japan and the Americas.

The Connexion by Boeing service provides passengers a broadband Internet connection via satellite. Users can connect using their own notebook computers or personal digital assistants (PDAs) via either Ethernet ports in seats or a wireless LAN on the aircraft.

Transmission speeds of the service vary with conditions but can be as fast as 20Mbps, said Scott Carson, president of Connexion by Boeing, in an interview.

At least one-quarter of the bandwidth 5Mbps is given over to passenger data needs with another quarter devoted to carriage of television broadcasts, a quarter for airline use and the final quarter as a buffer to provide extra bandwidth to the other applications when needed, he said. The upstream channel off the aircraft is 1Mbps.

“Connexion by Boeing gives (passengers) a lot of choice about how they spend that time (on board), whether it be listening to music, surfing the ‘net, communicating through instant message or e-mail or, if they are part of a corporate structure, going through the firewall and accessing their network,” he said.

The system puts no restrictions on applications that can be run – it’s a selling point of the service that users can run the same applications they normally do from their desk or home – although there is the ability to shut off or restrict users if they become “bandwidth hogs,” Carson said.

Boeing will charge for the service. Carson said he expects it to cost between US$15 and US$17 for a medium-haul flight of about three hours to five hours and between US$25 and US$30 on a long haul flight for more than seven hours of access.

The company is also planning to court corporate account customers, although it admits that it needs to become more widely available before many will sign on. For the service to be profitable the company needs business travelers, many of whom carry notebook computers, to log on while en route to their destinations.

“Our model says what we would like to see at maturity is 20 per cent of the cabin using it, so on a (Boeing) 747 that’s 60 to 70 people,” said Carson. “In our demonstrations, up to 120 people were using it, so the numbers look promising early on,” said Carson, referring to trial runs earlier this year by British Airways PLC and Lufthansa AG.

He said the company is also looking at the corporate jet market and reached an agreement last month under which Rockwell Collins will install and manage Connexion by Boeing systems on business jets. Secondary markets such as maritime are also being eyed by the company as it begins to roll out commercial service and look for users to populate the system.

Regarding safety, Carson said system trials had shown wireless LAN use on board the aircraft posed no problems to aircraft systems and that it is absolutely safe to use in flight. Citing approval from Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority and Germany’s Luftfahrt Bundesamt, or Federal Office of Civil Aeronautics, he said signal levels are so low that the only trouble has been interference to the wireless LAN system from on-board microwave ovens.

By signing a letter of intent, Singapore Airlines joins All Nippon Airways Co. Ltd. (ANA) on the list of Asian carriers evaluating the system and discussing needs with Boeing. British Airways is also evaluating the system and, in addition to this week’s JAL agreement, Boeing has signed firm deals with Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airline Systems for the service.

Boeing says it hopes ANA will sign a firm deal before the end of this year. In a statement issued on Tuesday, Singapore Airlines said it wants to have installation of the system on its jets begin in the third quarter of 2004 with commercial service starting shortly thereafter.

“We have discussions under way with about a dozen airlines, including airlines in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the South Pacific,” said Carson.

U.S. airlines were initially seen as major customers for the service, and Boeing was working closely with AMR Corp.’s American Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and UAL Corp.’s United Airlines Inc. However, the 2001 terrorist attacks caused them to change their plans.

“After (the attacks) we and the three airlines we were working with agreed that their time was best spent working on their own survival in such a desperate situation,” he said. “They stayed engaged with us, and as health is beginning to return, those airlines that were working with us … are coming back to us and engaging in an active discussion about how we might equip their fleets.”