Companies team to offer in-air services

Three airline industry companies plan to unite by year-end and offer more in-flight IT services to airline passengers.

Airline IT services provider SITA Information Networking Computing USA will join forces with Airbus SAS, the aircraft manufacturer, and Tenzing Communications, which sells products to enable in-flight e-mail and SMS services. The three companies will offer a suite of products for both voice and data. The group says it will be incorporated as a new company called OnAir by year-end.

"OnAir will enable airlines and passengers to use their existing equipment, such as handsets, laptops, mobile phones and PDAs, for new services," say Francesco Violante, managing director of SITA. He says that to date, in-flight services have been very expensive, too expensive in fact for the average air traveler to use frequently. "We plan to offer services available today as well as more services in the next two years at a reasonable cost for travelers," he adds.

To start, OnAir will continue to provide services available today from the three companies. IT services such as in-seat telephony (via handsets provided on the plane), in-seat SMS messaging and instant messaging from passenger laptops will continue to be offered by the joint company as OnAir services. In 2005, Violante says OnAir will improve to allow passengers access to their corporate VPNs and enable Internet browsing from their laptops. By 2006, the group will enable mobile telephony, meaning passengers will be able to use their own mobile device to make calls and send and receive SMS messages.

"We will provide voice and data communication for long- and short-haul Boeing and Airbus equipment," Violante says.

The services will be enabled by a specialized avionics box installed on an aircraft, he says. The box would capture mobile signals, and render and reuse the signal so there is no interference with the plane's communication systems. A small antenna on the avionics box will communicate with satellites, which will connect through service providers to the Internet.

One of the challenges of equipping planes with this technology in the past, according to Violante, was adding the necessary gear to aircraft. OnAir and its specialized system will allow the boxes to be installed during scheduled maintenance, which "could be as little as an overnight installation," he says.

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