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Airline to put text messaging on flights

Singapore Airlines' move comes as some U.S. carriers have scaled back similar plans. The airline calls the program "affordable," though there is one drawback.

Singapore Airlines said Wednesday that passengers on select flights beginning in July would be able to send text messages to mobile phones around the world.

Passengers will be able to send messages via Short Message Service (SMS) by using an LCD (liquid-crystal display) panel and handset fitted to their seats. To compose a message, people can either use the handset's numeric keypad or the touch-screen monitor.

Unimobile, an India-based company, will act as the messaging broker between Singapore Airlines and 400 mobile phone operators in 130 countries. The application that powers the service was developed by Bothell, Wash.-based Matsushita Avionics Systems.

Singapore Airlines' announcement comes as some U.S. carriers have scaled back their in-flight communication plans. American Airlines said earlier this year that it would be discontinuing its in-flight phone service from AT&T. Southwest Airlines, another U.S. carrier, began removing the seat-back phones last year.

Further, aircraft manufacturer Boeing has cut staff at "Connexion by Boeing," a high-speed in-flight Internet service that had struck deals with American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, those plans were put on hold.

With Singapore Airlines' program, outgoing messages are cached, compressed and delivered to the recipient using Inmarsat Holdings' satellite system. Apart from text messaging, passengers will be able to use the same program for e-mail, Singapore Airlines said.

One drawback, however, is that passengers will not be able to receive text or e-mail messages while on the plane.

During the three-month trial period, both services will be available on 10 Megatop B747 and Jubilee B777 planes for flights from Singapore to the United States, Europe and Australia.

"There won't be any fees imposed during the trial," said Yap Kim Wah, Singapore Airlines' senior vice president for Products & Services. After the commercial launch, the cost of each outgoing message will be "affordable," he said, adding that pricing is yet to be determined.

By November, all 69 long-haul aircraft will be equipped with the system, Yap said.

He added that in three to four years, Singapore Airlines hopes to offer broadband Internet access on flights. Though the airline suspended its in-flight e-mail and Internet access trial with Seattle-based Tenzing Communications, it said it is in talks with Connexion.

CNET Asia's Irene Tham reported from Singapore.