Emirates to spruce up flights with Wi-Fi e-mail

Emirates, an airline that offers private suites in first class, is now adding a wireless LAN (WLAN) e-mail service on some aircrafts.

The deal, announced Wednesday, is the first WLAN partnership for Tenzing Communications Inc., which already provides software and infrastructure for wired in-flight Internet systems on other airlines. Tenzing is working with Europe’s Airbus S.A.S. and a division of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. to equip Emirates’ new Airbus A340-500 jets with Wi-Fi LANs. Emirates is a division of The Emirates Group, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in the Persian Gulf.

Unlike the Connexion by Boeing in-flight Internet service offered by The Boeing Co., Tenzing’s service is not designed for full Web browsing but is focused on e-mail, said Alan McGinnis, chief executive officer of Tenzing, in Seattle. By focusing the service and working with partners, Tenzing can set up a service less expensively and pass the savings on to passengers, McGinnis said. On a long-haul Emirates flight such as Dubai to San Francisco, it is likely to cost less than US$20, he said.

Connexion by Boeing last year estimated airlines would sell its service for between US$15 for short-haul domestic flights and US$30 for long-haul trips.

Tenzing’s service runs on special client software, which customers will be able to download from Emirates’ Web site before the flight. With the wireless LAN, which will be built in to the A340-500s as an optional feature, passengers with standard Wi-Fi notebook PCs will be able to connect wirelessly to an onboard server. Dialup e-mail access from seatbacks will also be available.

From the plane, e-mail goes to a satellite and then down to a ground station operated by Tenzing, which is the Internet service provider. It uses the plane’s existing satellite radio communication system, with a narrow connection — 2.4Kbps each way — so messages are batched on the server and sent periodically, McGinnis said.

Tenzing’s software supports a wide variety of e-mail clients including any POP3 client., and can support some types of corporate virtual private networks, he said. The company probably will offer support for IBM Corp. Lotus Notes mail in the next few months, he added.

The A340-500 is a long-range jet designed to carry more than 300 passengers in three classes, according to Airbus’s Web site. It is expected to go into service on nonstop flights between Emirates’ base in Dubai and cities in the U.S. this year, Tenzing’s McGinnis said.

Like Connexion by Boeing, Tenzing sees the possibility of in-flight wireless phone calls, using dual-mode cellular and Wi-Fi phones.

“There’s no question it’s going to happen, and this will all get worked out eventually, and our system would support it as soon as it was enabled,” McGinnis said. However, there are environmental issues to consider, he added, such as whether a marathon talker would annoy other passengers.

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