The New York Times > Travel > Practical Traveler: Logging On at 30,000 Feet

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The New York Times > Travel > Practical Traveler: Logging On at 30,000 Feet: “Logging On at 30,000 Feet


Published: August 8, 2004

IN late May, Ortwin Freyermuth readied himself for an 11-hour flight from Munich to his Los Angeles home – a journey typically preceded by a flurry of last-minute e-mail messages, in anticipation of a day’s worth of traveling incommunicado.

This time, though, Mr. Freyermuth eased onto his Lufthansa flight less harried than on previous trips. When his plane reached cruising altitude, he opened up his iBook, logged onto the Internet and answered messages from 30,000 feet.

“It was amazing,” said Mr. Freyermuth, a lawyer. “Now I don’t have to stress out before every flight.”

The price of a stress-free flight – Lufthansa’s Connexion by Boeing service costs $30 for a long-haul flight (six hours or more), or $10 for 30 minutes – is perhaps more than some are willing to pay. But Connexion is at the leading edge of a trend that analysts and executives said will gain momentum this year, and is likely to lead to lower prices, a greater selection of vendors and much more mouse clicking on flights.

Connexion made its debut in May on Lufthansa, which calls its service FlyNet, and is the first full-feature, in-flight Internet service to reach travelers, after years of half-starts.

The airline industry had originally planned to roll out airborne Web surfing in late 2001, but companies shelved those plans after Sept. 11 and the ensuing financial malaise.

The service is only available to those with wireless Internet connections for their laptop or handheld computers. Increasingly wireless connections are built into portable devices, but those with older laptops can buy a wireless PC card for $50 to $100. What you get is a better experience than most Internet users receive at home. Wireless connection speeds are generally up to 20 times faster than those of dial-up service, and if just a few people are logged on in the plane, the speed can rival that of some workplace connections. And unlike many workplace Internet connections, Connexion’s service offers unrestricted Web access.

5 Planes and Counting

So far, five Lufthansa airplanes are equipped with the satellite receivers and wireless networks necessary to run the system, and the only routes served as of July were Munich-Los Angeles and Munich-Tokyo. But the company plans to equip all of its long-range aircraft with the technology, and add New York routes by the end of the year.

According to Terrance Scott, a Connexion spokesman, Japan Airlines will be the next to add the service, sometime this summer or early fall, followed by Scandinavian Airlines and All Nippon Airways. Singapore Airlines, China Airlines and Korean Air will follow early next year. Mr. Scott said Connexion is in “active discussions” with several United States carriers, but none has signed on yet.

Boeing’s chief rival, Airbus, is part owner of Tenzing, a competing service that claims to have been first to send an e-mail message from an aircraft (four years ago this month). Tenzing has allowed airline passengers to send and receive e-mail messages on about 800 United, Continental and US Airways airplanes since 2003, using dial-up cables connected to Verizon Airfones.

Changes are coming to that system as well, though. Until this month, customers had to pay $16 a flight to log into Verizon’s JetConnect system, a closed Internet universe of sorts that lets customers click through about 800 pages of news, sports, stock quotes and games, among other things, while also sending and receiving text messages, instant messages and e-mail.

But now Tenzing’s e-mail service is available separately for $10 on domestic flights and $20 for international flights, with added charges for sending and receiving attachments. (JetConnect’s services, except e-mail, are also available for $6 per flight segment.) According to Alex McGowan, vice president for marketing, Tenzing also plans to offer lower prices for shorter flights this year, probably below $5 for flights of up to two hours. In addition to the United States-based carriers, Tenzing is available, with satellite service, on Cathay Pacific and Emirates; Iberia will follow in November.

Tenzing, for now, operates at roughly the same speed as most dial-up modem connections, because it relies on lower frequency signals to send and retrieve data. But speeds could improve considerably, depending on whether the airline chooses a satellite connection.

Verizon’s JetConnect will also get a speed boost next year, while freeing customers from the constraints of wires. Pending Federal Communications Commission approval, the company will begin offering JetConnect through a high-speed wireless connection in late 2005.

Hot Spots in Terminals

For passengers on airplanes without Internet services, it may still make sense to keep the laptop in the carry-on luggage, as many airports are rolling out wireless Internet access in terminals, lounges and even on the sidewalks. According to Jupiter Research, a market research company, at least 25 of the nation’s 50 busiest airports offer so-called wireless hot spots in public areas.

La Guardia’s central terminal has had wireless access (for $6.95 a day) since early 2003, said Tiffany Townsend, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The US Airways terminal will offer the service by year’s end. Newark’s Terminals A and B have wireless access, and Terminal C will by wired by December. Kennedy Airport wired Terminals 8 and 9 this year; Terminals 1 through 7 are to follow between now and the end of next year.

Most airport Web sites will tell you whether wireless access is available, but if that fails, you can log onto,, or other sites.

What you pay – if anything – depends on where you are, according to Julie Ask, an analyst with Jupiter Research. Ms. Ask said that a handful of regional airports, like Long Beach Airport in California, or Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky., offer free wireless Internet access as a way to compete against their larger rivals. The services aren’t currently used by many travelers, Ms. Ask said, since only 25 percent of Internet users have surfed on wireless, or wi-fi, connections. But, she said, that number is expected to grow steadily.

At Blue Grass Airport, travelers and nontravelers have used the free Internet connection in a multitude of ways. According to Thomas Tyra, the airport’s manager of marketing and community relations, the airport installed its wireless system at a cost of $17,000 in late 2001. Now, he said, roughly 100 of the airport’s 2,700 daily passengers use the service.

The Internet signal extends throughout the terminal including the gates and lobby and 300 feet outside the building. “People can circle around the airport and check to see if flights are arriving, so they don’t have to pay to park,” Mr. Tyra said.

Wireless users can get equally creative in the air. On the trip from Munich, Mr. Freyermuth, who uses a Macintosh, attached his iSight camera to his laptop and set up a videoconference with his son. “It would’ve been great,” Mr. Freyermuth said, “but he wasn’t logged on.”

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