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OCTOBER 30, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 17

Surfing in the Sky: The Net Takes Flight

Illustration for TIME by Michael Bury.
Technology keeps making it easier for business travelers to be constantly productive—and harder for them to claim they can't be reached. Depending on your perspective, it's about to get a lot better or a lot worse as the Internet goes airborne. Air Canada was the first airline to successfully test the Web in the skies this summer, using a ground-based system that works over North America. Now Asian pioneers Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are preparing to blaze a path over the oceans.

Starting next year, Cathay Pacific will install high-speed in-flight e-mail and Internet services across its entire 62-plane fleet. "People want in the air what they can get on the ground," says Sarah Blomfield, manager of Cathay's in-flight product department. "They expect it, so we're going to deliver it." The Cathay system will use a suite of services provided by Tenzing Communications Inc., a U.S-based global Internet service provider. With your laptop, you'll be able to connect through the in-seat system and send and receive e-mails, surf the Web or shop at your favorite e-stores. Set up like a local area network, the in-seat systems are wired to a main server. While the entire contents of the Web won't be available, passengers will be able to browse more than 100,000 pages. Tenzing will offer a selection including content from Yahoo!, Amazon, Time Warner and many other sources. The system will be connected at speeds of 1.5 megabytes a minute, faster than what most people have in their homes. And the best part is, there won't be a charge for using the service.


Surfing in the Sky: The Net Takes Flight
Technology keeps making it easier for business travelers to be constantly productive—and harder for them to claim they can't be reached.

Web Crawling
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Since dawn, the tiny contestants have been fluttering around in their dome-shaped cages, which hang from tall metal poles.

Travel Watch Archive: Browse hundreds of Asian travel tips

Singapore Airlines is testing two systems: Tenzing's, on a trans-Pacific flight in November, and one from Honeywell Inc., which it will launch on a trial basis in December on an as-yet-unnamed route. Both versions will plug into the laptop via the phone jack. After a few months of testing, the airline will select the best system and announce installation plans.

Relying on passengers' laptops limits who can access the on-board system, but it also limits disruption of in-flight entertainment services. "We looked at seatback systems, but without installing a keyboard the Web is too awkward to navigate," says T.K. Yeoh, manager of inflight entertainment for Singapore Airlines. Airborne Net access means more than just convenience and entertainment for passengers. In the cockpit, pilots will be able to get a much better picture of weather conditions along their route than they currently receive.

While air-travel experts agree that the Internet will take flight sooner or later, most carriers are willing to let Singapore Airlines and Cathay be the guinea pigs. "Making in-flight systems work on the ground is one thing," says Geoffrey Tudor, a spokesman for Japan Airlines. "Getting them to work in the air is a whole other game." He should know: JAL was one of the first to try out seatback video systems and suffered plenty of teething troubles. Singapore Airlines' Yeoh concedes that implementing in-flight entertainment systems has caused a lot of grief. "There was a lot of heartache," he says. "But it all depends on how you see it: you can be a pioneer or you can be a sacrificial lamb. We believe our passengers will understand that we're taking the lead in improving the flight experience." And he's betting that the only airborne lamb on Singapore Airlines will be the kind that comes wrapped in foil with mint sauce.

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