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Commentary: A lift for in-flight work

When traveling by an Airbus or Boeing plane, whether working or relaxing, business users now can surf the Internet, send and receive e-mail, and enjoy TV service.

By James Lundy, Gartner Analyst

Providing passengers with in-flight Internet access is not as simple as flipping the switch on a new technology. Extending established tools such as the Internet into new areas also affects the business culture of those who use them.

The two big commercial aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, are getting ready to roll out Internet service for passengers. On Wednesday, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines announced their intent to form a joint venture with Boeing that would provide Internet access to passengers in flight. On Thursday, Airbus bought a stake in Tenzing, a maker of in-flight Internet access systems.

See news story:
Airbus enters in-flight Internet dogfight
Boeing's Connexion unit will provide its two-way broadband service to 1,500 commercial aircraft. The vendors expect to begin installing the service in the second half of 2002. Tenzing's service is available now.

Already, some airlines have been getting their passengers connected in other ways. For example, JetBlue Airways, a smaller U.S. carrier, has offered live DirectTV service since it started flying to and from New York.

From the perspective of technology, not much has changed--the pervasive Internet has found one more venue. But this simple move matters more to users, the businesses they work for and vendors that provide Internet-based services. When travelling by an Airbus or Boeing plane, whether working or relaxing, you can surf the Internet, send and receive e-mail, and enjoy TV service.

Ordinary passengers will welcome this. The technology will enable airlines to distribute books and magazines electronically instead of by paper--thus entertaining more passengers with more choices during long and often delayed flights.

Business travelers should find the service useful. Airplane flights are a blackout period for otherwise well-connected road warriors, who often have to rush off planes as soon as they land to find a modem in the airport. In-fight Internet access will help. At the same time, however, knowledge workers will have one less place where they can get away from e-mail and the pressures of the virtual workplace. The new service will thus add incrementally to the strain of overwork.

All of this assumes that the price of such services will be more reasonable than the current fees offered on airplanes. The price that Tenzing charges, when combined with slow speed of the service, will probably draw only those that absolutely need to send or receive an e-mail while in the air. The rest will wait to use the airline clubroom when they land.

Assuming that these services take off, enterprises will have to review reimbursement guidelines for executives that need to connect to the office while in the air. Today, many enterprises do not reimburse employees for AirPhone usage, partly due to the exorbitant fees charged by providers.

(For related commentary on wireless connections at airports, see registration required.)

Entire contents, Copyright ? 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.