United Airlines Upgrades Inflight Internet Services

United Airlines is upgrading its e-mail and Internet services on some domestic flights, helping the carrier to stake a claim as the first U.S. airline to offer two-way e-mail services in-flight.

The Chicago-based airline is planning to offer two-way e-mail capability through Verizon Airfone’s “JetConnect” in-air service.

The upgraded capability, which debuts later this year, is aimed mostly at business travelers and could help the airline differentiate itself from low-cost, no frills airlines that have begun to dominate the airline industry in recent years.

United, which is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, has already outfitted some of its planes with the new technology. By year-end, United said, passengers on domestic flights will be able to send and receive e-mail inflight. Currently, the airline offers some first-generation in-flight communications services, including instant messaging and one-way text messaging on some domestic flights.

Verizon Communication’s Airfone subsidiary is the carrier and wireless messaging company Tenzing Communication is providing backend technology, including JetConnect instant messaging and text messaging.

For $5.99 per flight customers can use messaging services, play games, and get news, weather and sports updates.

JetConnect said it would deploy servers on the plane that are updated every fifteen minutes, including for customers with laptops or notebook PCs they would like to use for in-flight Internet access. JetConnect said a typical package with in-flight e-mail capabilities would cost United customers $15.98 per flight, plus 10 cents per kilobyte of data over 2 kilobytes. A single kilobyte contains about one-half to two-thirds of a page of text.

United isn’t the only airline adding more messaging services to its flights, but the latest upgrade does push it into the lead regarding the scope of messaging services available to United passengers. Continental Airlines has outfitted 300 of its planes with an initial version of Verizon’s JetConnect, but would need to be upgraded to be able to offer two-way e-mails.

Initially, JetConnect with e-mail is expected to be available to North American frequent business travelers who use the POP3 (post office protocol) for checking e-mail, Microsoft Exchange via Outlook Web access and Lotus Notes via POP. Additional e-mail protocols are slated to be supported in the coming months, the companies said.

Tenzing is already offering inflight e-mail services on Cathay Pacific Airways planes. Tenzing’s system is competing with a similar service being marketed to airlines by Boeing’s Connexion unit. Connexion has conducted inflight Internet trials with both
Lufthansa and British Airways this year. The Connexion service allows fliers to surf the Internet and to send and receive e-mail.

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