You've Got Mail -- at 30,000 Feet


By Alan Hall From: Alan Hall

To: Meredith Hall

Subject: You There?

Hi,

As promised, I'm on Singapore Airlines Flight 30 from Singapore to Los Angeles. This is my first attempt -- and one of the first by passengers anywhere -- at sending an e-mail message from an airplane in flight.

I've been walked through the login process but my confidence level isn't very high yet. If you get this, let me know -- ASAP -- and tell me how your soccer game went.

Love,

Dad

O.K., I admit this doesn't have the ring of Alexander Graham Bell's first message by telephony -- "Mr. Watson, come here, I need you." But in a way it is a small -- but probably significant -- note in history for business travelers.

This Boeing 747 I'm riding is arguably the most "loaded" aircraft now flying. I'm on an 11-hour flight to L.A. on the first plane in regular service to offer passengers e-mail and Web access from the sky -- to and from anywhere on earth. This plane is also equipped with the most advanced entertainment system now being flown by a major carrier. I've booked a seat to get an idea of the future of air travel.

Until now, the best way to be totally out of touch was to climb on a 14-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. Air phones provided a bit of connectivity but studies showed that most business travelers didn't use them because of high charges. Our personal computers are another matter. According to Tenzing Communications in Seattle, which makes the inflight e-mail systems, 60% of frequent business flyers -- who send or receive from 30 to 50 e-mail messages a day -- use their laptops in flight, and 80% are willing to pay for e-mail service.

WIRED FLYER. Singapore Airlines (SIA) is betting $100 million that Tenzing is right. At a briefing at SIA's training center in Singapore, execs from the airline and its partners, Tenzing and Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp. in Bothell, Wash., unveiled their latest gear for the wired flyer. "Now passengers in the sky can stay connected with colleagues, family, and friends on the ground," says Michael Tan, SIA's vice-president for commercial flights.

When passengers aren't working, Matsushita's goal is to these keep them entertained with audio and DVD-quality movies on demand -- and lots of games. An SIA passenger survey found that on a 10-hour flight, passengers spend four hours watching movies, listening to music, and playing video games.

Tenzing, you may recall, was the Sherpa who guided Sir Edmund Hilary to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. And Tenzing Communications is a two-year-old startup dedicated to elevating e-mail to even greater heights. "The next step in connectivity is the ability to be as productive in the air as you are on the ground." says Alan Pellegrini, president of Tenzing. "We need to stay on top of our world, stay in control -- the last hurdle is the airplane."

Well, we'll see how that lofty rhetoric plays out. Our small group of execs, technicians, and a few Asian journalists (I'm the only U.S. journalist) is herded onto a bus to Singapore's Changi Airport, where we're escorted to the airline's first-class lounge. Alex Bell -- yes, that really is his name -- who headed the Tenzing team that developed the software, conducts an on-ground set-up session.

I'm not surprised that I can't use my Mac, but SIA assures me Apple support is coming

Bell takes one look at my shiny new Macintosh G4 Titanium laptop and shakes his head. I should've known. "The present system requires Microsoft Window 95 or later and Microsoft Internet Explorer," he admits. Apple support is coming "soon."

Bell graciously offers me a loaner PC from SIA. While you can configure your computer during a flight, it's time wasted. The best approach is to set up on the ground before you board. To make a connection, you need a PC with Windows and Explorer as well as your usual e-mail program -- Outlook Express or Eudora. If you prefer Netscape as a browser, you can use it, but Explorer must still be installed.

Bell is making a final run-through of a passenger tutorial that over the next few months will be offered at a kiosk in SIA's first- and business-class lounges on routes flying planes equipped with the new system. He checks computers for compatibility and helps install a program from a CD-ROM that sets you up as a user of the system. It's essentially a Web home page that gives you password access to the servers on the aircraft and to the system from the ground.

SETTINGS. Travelers also need an adapter that connects their computer to the plane's electrical power. These can be obtained on board. Frequent flyers may want to purchase their own. And, of course, don't forget a standard telephone cord to connect your computer to the server on the aircraft. You'll also need to be able to access settings from your present ground-based Internet account, such as POP and SMPT addresses -- things that many users are only vaguely aware of because they rely on corporate technicians to configure their laptops.

Those who don't get set up on the ground -- including those riding in economy -- will be greeted with a seat card describing the service and another with instructions for getting set up. Those who really plan ahead can open accounts and get set up before leaving home by visiting www.tenzing.com.

By September, SIA plans to have the system installed on 55 aircraft -- and to have won enough converts to begin charging for the service. While fees have yet to be set, SIA and Tenzing officials insist they will probably be "reasonable" -- competitive with what America Online, CompuServe, and other Internet service providers charge for hourly usage.

We've taken off from Changi and the captain has indicated that electronic devices such as computers can now be used. You plug your modem phone cord into a port behind the telephone and video controller, the power adapter connects to the front of the seat arm. I boot up the Tenzing program, follow the password prompt, and a typical Web page appears, presenting options including e-mail and browsing.

Sending and receiving aren't as simple as you would think

So far, so good. I select e-mail and up comes the standard "new message" prompt. It's pretty easy because I can run the familiar Outlook Express program that I normally use for e-mail. I write my less than profound message to my daughter and press "Send." Off it goes -- or seems to.

Actually, it's not that simple. The interface is an ISP in the sky and talks to a server on the airplane. But, while the on-board system creates an impression of seamless, real-time communication, like we're used to on the ground, there is a lag. Every 10 minutes, the server on the plane calls up a satellite, uploads whatever is outgoing from the plane, and sends it down to Tenzing's ground station in Seattle.

Then your messages are sent over the ground-based Internet. The program also calls up your usual e-mail accounts and forwards any new mail to the Tenzing account. The result is that it can take 20 minutes from the time you send until the e-mail appears in the recipient's mail box.

Each user has 150kb of space -- enough for about 100 average-length e-mail messages. You can also send attachments, although if it's the two-hour Powerpoint presentation you're making tomorrow you might be out of luck.

SKEPTICAL SKYWRITER. I'm sitting in the middle seat of a row of three. To the right is Laura Alikpala, marketing director for Tenzing, who answers my questions when I think I've messed up. On the left, a businessman returning to Taipei who has been working incessantly at his computer -- and watching with interest my attempts to get connected.

Finally, he asks me what I'm doing. I explain -- and ask him if he would like a try. He nods affirmative. This is, after all, a live test flight so I wave down Derek Applegate, Tenzing's senior manager for airline programs. "I've got a real live passenger here," I say. "Want to see what happens?"

He does. I unplug my configured PC and pass it to my seatmate. Applegate runs forward and comes back with a password. O.K., we say, send some e-mail, to your boss, wife, or whatever -- and copy yourself as well. He looks thoughtful and types "dkdkdkdkkd."

YAWNING GAP. "No, no," I say. "There is history being made here. You are the first flying business passenger ever to send e-mail from a plane over the Pacific Ocean." He nods, reconsiders, and sends a message. He waits a few minutes, then clicks on "Get Mail." Nothing. Tries again. Nothing. Applegate explains the reason for the lag. Another try -- it has been 20 minutes -- and yes, there is a message. "This was sent from an airplane," it says.

What does he think of it? The dour passenger is unimpressed. "Too slow," he says -- dismissing something that has never before been possible. The man who doesn't remember 300 baud passes the PC back to me.

More than an hour has passed since I sent my message, so I decide to check my e-mail. And there it is -- along with the usual junk e-mail offering herbal Viagra and ways to make millions, lower mortgage rates, and increase traffic to my Web site -- is a reply from home.

From: Meredith Hall

To: Alan Hall

Subject: Re: You There?

Dad,

Got it. Mom says to say hello and to tell you everything is O.K. here. I scored two goals in one soccer game -- and I'm a keeper! We sent the stuff back to the University of Vermont -- I'm really excited about going there.

When will you be home?

Love,

Meredith

I reply. And I decide to see if one of those very real business issues can be dealt with from the sky. I need to confirm a hotel reservation, which I'd normally do from the ground by phone during the couple of hours I'll be spending at the airport in Los Angeles. But I've written down the Canadian hotel's e-mail address. Off it goes.

In the meantime, I'll do a little Web surfing. Like e-mail, the Web in the sky isn't in real time -- yet -- so you can't connect to Travelocity to order up a rental car at LAX. But it consists of a broad menu of Web sites that are cached on the plane's server and are updated on an hourly basis from the ground. Just launch your Web browser and click away.

INFO OVERLOAD. If it's news you want, you can get it. Gone are the days of yesterday's lame clips from CNN on an overhead screen. Here you can find news services from Bloomberg and CNN, BBC and ESPN. Sports? Try CBS Sportsline. Want to settle an argument about the International Dateline or verify an answer to a crossword puzzle or a game of trivia? Just open up Encyclopedia Britannica. You can also shop a bit at Amazon.com or check out the latest stock information from Charles Schwab.

Publications available include The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Fortune, Forbes, The Economist -- and, oh yes, BusinessWeek. I click and there it is: BusinessWeek Online, in its latest daily iteration.

We've been fed dinner, we've landed briefly in Taipei, and we're now on the long leg across the Pacific to Los Angeles. The window curtains have been pulled closed and the cabin lights dimmed to create one of those frequent flyer's ersatz nights. Like many on board, I decide its time for a little inflight entertainment.

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT. On the flight to Singapore, I rode on a plane equipped with Matsushita's last generation system, which is now in use in all classes throughout the SIA fleet. I thought it was pretty impressive until I saw the new system, dubbed MAS 3000.

It uses the same 6.5-inch seatside screen (14 inches in first class) but the graphics are far more sophisticated and the menus more detailed and clearer. Movies are encoded in the MPEG format used by DVDs. The system is digital and runs over fiber-optic connections from the system servers to each passengers seat. Storage capacity is immense -- 288 GB.

Order up a movie or a CD and it's delivered in compressed format to your seat. An encoder under each seat has the computing power of a high-end PC loaded with 64MB of random access memory. This provides fast loading -- and protects against glitches: if one seat's system goes down, the rest on the plane will still operate.

VIDEO LIBRARY. So I don the Dolby Surround Sound headphones that are standard equipment in business and first classes, grab the controller and have a look around. The audio-and-video-on-demand system offers passengers the equivalent of every multiplex theater in town and several radio stations -- a total of 90 entertainment options.

Movie choices run from current hits like Finding Forrester, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and What Women Want to old standbys like The French Connection. You can load them up, pause, and rewind, just like on your VCR at home.

If you wonder where you are, a click on the menu brings up the flight-route map with its little airplane icon showing your position as well as airspeed, distance to destination, and estimated time of arrival. And, if you're curious about where you're going, the system contains travelogues and other videos specific to your destination.

There are so many inflight options, the airline predicts sleepless nights

Games? SIA has an exclusive license to 25 Nintendo "Game Boy" games including Pokemon and Mario. And the onboard network will let you pick your opponent and play chess or a version of trivia, wherever they're seated. There's also an onboard "chat room." Maybe you can even make a friend who's way up there in first class. It won't be the first time someone has won a new job on an airplane.

Yet, just how much entertainment can one traveler stand, I wonder. Yeoh Teng Kwong, SIA's senior manager for inflight entertainment, has the answer. He cites studies showing that on a typical 10-hour flight, the average passenger reads for about 75 minutes and sleeps for about 3 hours. "Maybe you will soon have sleepless flights on SIA," suggests Kwong.

I call up Vertical Limit, a movie about scaling Everest's cousin mountain, K2. The image is bright, high-resolution DVD quality, and the sound is like being in a theater. But sleepless nights, however, are not for me -- I'm nodding off. I'll pick up the film later.

But just after I fall asleep, I'm awakened by peals of laughter. Heads are now popping up all over the cabin. Isolated by his headset, one passenger appears to have found the world's funniest movie. Just as I'm ready to walk over and ask what he's watching, an annoyed passenger taps him on the shoulder. His face reddens, and silence is restored.

YOUR ROOM IS WAITING. It's dawn. That wake-up call of brewing coffee fills the cabin. The flight crew passes out the latest in a succession of hot towels and pushes up the windows, allowing full sunlight to flood the cabin. With breakfast on the way, I decide that the rest of Vertical Limit will have to wait.

I'll make one more check of e-mail instead. There's more junk e-mail and...

From: Frobisher Inn, Iqualuit, Nunuvat, Canada

To: Alan Hall

Subject: Re: Reservation

Dear Mr. Hall,

Your reservations are confirmed.

Look forward to meeting you.

Sylvia Tuckwood

Assistant General Manager

Wow. And not only does this system handle your e-mail, Web surfing, e-commerce, and games, it will tell the crew and its owners a lot about you. When you call for a cabin-crew member, they'll know who you are and greet you by name. If you're meeting a connecting flight, they'll know that as well and be able to direct you or alert the next carrier.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU. Also, the system will know exactly what you did while you were in your seat -- what you ordered for dinner, the movies you watched, the games you played, where you were going, what you bought, and more. That information will allow the carrier to hone its choices of food and entertainment on various routes.

What I've seen here at the interface between airspace and cyberspace is just a beginning, I'm told. Within a year or so, Tenzing says its committed to delivering satellite-based broadband connectivity to the Internet. No more lags, just being online. And Matsushita's says 180 of its new 3000 entertainment systems are on order from 17 carriers.

Well, forget the rest of Vertical Limit. Our flying circus is in its final approach to LAX. The captain has just made the obligatory announcement to turn off all cell phones and electronic devices. Time for to turn off my PC. Bye.

ALMOST HOME. I'm writing this in a fast-food place at LAX and I'm back on my Macintosh. I've got a two-hour wait for a flight back to my native Eastern Standard Time (daylight savings). On this flight, I've seen the future -- and, yes, it works. I knew that it did when I started getting junk e-mail at 37,000 feet. For business travelers, the skies are indeed becoming a friendlier place. The final barrier has fallen.

If you're among those who actually enjoyed flying the lonely skies, take heart: You don't have to use all this stuff. Nobody says you have to turn it on. But business travelers will, won't we? Hall, who is contributing science and technology writer for BusinessWeek Online, finally made it back to New York


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