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Verizon brings IM to in-flight phones

The telecom company is betting on instant messaging to give a boost to its seatback phones, just as its main rival disconnects its sky-high wireless ambitions.

Verizon Communications is taking its in-flight telephone service to new heights just as its main rival has grounded its own sky-high wireless ambitions.

On Friday, the company introduced JetConnect, a new service that will let airlines offer passengers more to do with seatback phones, like exchanging instant messages or providing other kinds of Web-based services.

For $5, passengers can plug a laptop into the phone's jack and spend the duration of a flight typing messages with Yahoo or AOL buddies on the ground or in the plane. They can also send 160-character text-messages to cell phones and read news and sports information updates every 15 minutes.

Seatback pay phones have been on commercial airplanes since the early 1990s. But due to scant use of them, most airlines over the past two years have been ripping them out or canceling their service contracts. Verizon is counting on its new service to invigorate the use of these phones--and its return from the investment.

Airfone, Verizon's airline phone division, has installed phones on 1,700 commercial aircraft and for 14 airlines, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Continental Airlines and USAirways.

"We realized that fewer and fewer people are using these," said Mike Kuehn, director of airline technical services for Airfone. "We're trying to push the services further ahead."

And Verizon's timing may be working in its favor: Airfone's largest competitor just folded its aviation division.

Claircom, the aviation division of AT&T Wireless, was shuttered this month, said AT&T Wireless spokesman Mark Siegel. "We looked at our portfolio and as a publicly traded company, we saw what we needed to do going forward," Siegel said. "Aviation services was one of the businesses we decided to let go."

That leaves more than 1,000 domestic aircraft without a carrier to offer service for their seatback phones. However, instead of signing up with Airfone, most of these airlines are choosing to either remove the phones or not service them.

For example, former Claircom customer Delta, has not sought the services of Verizon for the phones in about 400 of its planes, said Delta spokesman Anthony Black.

Verizon expects about 100 aircraft to have JetConnect installed by year's end, up from about four now, Kuehn said. He didn't identify the airlines that are offering or planning to offer the service.

But Verizon can expect some turbulence ahead. The introduction of JetConnect debuts as airlines focus on meeting new security requirements since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And on-board broadband services are considered a luxury rather than a priority during these tight financial times for airlines, according to representatives in the industry.