United is developing its wireless plan in partnership with SoftNet Systems subsidiary Aerzone, which specializes in network access for business travelers.
Many laptop computers and personal digital assistants now offer wireless modems. Dell Computer, IBM and Apple Computer offer wireless connections in their new notebooks. Palm, Handspring and Compaq Computer have wireless modems for their handheld computers.
Market research firm Cahners predicts the wireless networking market will grow from $771 million last year to $2.2 billion in 2004, driven primarily by demand from business professionals.
The wireless hubs will be placed in United's Red Carpet Club, airport lounges, gate areas, terminals, first-class lounges and frequent flier centers, United and Aerzone said. United's plan includes offering high-speed wireless access via radio frequency 802.11.
Subscriptions will be available on a onetime or monthly basis. United did not disclose when the service will be available and has not yet decided how much to charge for a subscription.
"We recognize the value of our customers' time and the new United-Aerzone product will make it possible for our customers to use their laptops from nearly anywhere," Graham Atkinson, senior vice president of marketing for United, said in a statement.
United already offers its Mobile Chariot, a portable passenger check-in podium that uses a wireless Internet connection to communicate with the United reservations network. The airline, which has been criticized this summer for rampant flight delays and cancellations, also provides access to its flight schedule via the Palm VII, which has wireless Internet access, and through cell phones that offer Web access.
Currently, most airports offer Internet access only through modem-equipped pay phones or regular phone lines. But these are frequently unavailable, United noted, in part because there are more passengers who want Internet access than there are pay phones or open modems.
Aerzone is working on a similar project for Delta Air Lines, which will be finished sometime in 2001. Both Delta and United will likely offer business services, such as printing and access to corporate networks, in their first-class lounges, in addition to wireless Internet access in the terminals, an Aerzone representative said.
United's plans are subject to approval of individual airports.
Although United is offering a cutting-edge service, the airline has also run into technology-related problems this summer. In June, the company's Web site locked visitors out of popular United content. The same month, United and American Airlines both disclosed they were inspecting faulty wiring used to power laptop computers during flights.