Virgin to offer Internet, e-mail access on all flights

Virgin Atlantic Airways said Tuesday, it plans to offer limited Internet and e-mail access onboard flights by the end of the year.

The London-based airline is following the lead of several competitors, including Air Canada and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. in offering customers Internet access while in flight.

Virgin will be ahead of the pack in one regard: Its service is intended for all passengers, while other airlines plan to provide the service only for business and first-class customers.

Like Air Canada and Cathay Pacific, Virgin has signed a contract with Tenzing Communications in Seattle to provide the system, which will connect travelers to the Web through seat-back television screens or passengers' laptops.

The Tenzing system uses the aircraft satellite communications equipment for air-to-ground communications with an onboard proxy server. Passengers can get content from the server over a cabin LAN. The server will cache popular sites, and refresh periodically during the flight. Using the telephony equipment on board, the cost to retro-fit each aircraft to provide the service would be around $50,000 per plane, a Tenzing spokeswoman said.

According to a company statement, the new service will first be integrated into the new Matsushita MAS3000 in-flight entertainment system on a Boeing 747-400 aircraft. By the end of the year. the technology is to be installed in the each of the airline's 32 aircraft.

In the Air Canada deal, users can connect with dial-up speeds of 56K bps, but all data sent to and from the aircraft is still limited by low-speed air-to-ground links that operate at 9.6K bps on domestic flights and 2.4K bps on international flights.

In Seattle, The Boeing Co. is working on its Connexion service, which would bring broadband access and live television broadcasts to first-class and business-class passengers.

Last year, Virgin Atlantic introduced Earth Calling, a service that allows passengers to charge air-to-ground calls to their GSM account and also allows passengers to receive their mobile calls while in flight.

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