Take-Off, Plug-In, E-Mail

Get Message: Inflight e-mail and instant messaging are about to become fixtures of the U.S. skies.

Hoping to get a jump on the competition in the scramble for business travelers, United Airlines plans to be the first commercial carrier to offer two-way e-mail capability aboard all its domestic flights.

By the end of the year, passengers on all flights will be able to plug their laptops into jacks on the Verizon Airfone handsets, which will use technology by Tenzing Communications to transmit e-mails.

United, Colorado's largest airline, has offered JetConnect service on a trial basis on some 767 domestic aircraft since December — charging $5.99 per flight for instant messaging, one-way text messaging and select news, weather and other information. It is now expanding to JetConnect with e-mail, which increases the cost to $15.98 but enables passengers to send and receive e-mail, including attachments.

Another 10 cents will be added for each kilobyte of data over 2 kilobytes.

John Tague, United's executive vice president for customer initiatives, said the expanded offering illustrates the airline's focus on adding products and services that are "useful, affordable and in line with what travelers are asking for."

"The availability of e-mail is critical to business flyers," added Bill Pallone, president of Verizon Airfone.

United isn't first with the e-skies concept. Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, British Airways and Scandinavian Airlines System are all trying out or have committed to using a satellite high-speed Internet service offered by Connexion by Boeing this year.

United and several other airlines, including American and Delta, committed in 2001 to buy the service by Connexion, a competitor to Seattle-based Tenzing, which also now counts Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic among its customers. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks scrapped those plans, when the drop in air travel demand forced carriers into a fight for their survival.

Airline consultant Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., hailed the move by United, which is restructuring in federal bankruptcy court after losing millions of dollars and many of its passengers.

"I don't know about the average person sitting down and spending 20 bucks to send e-mails to Mama," Boyd said. "But it shows some innovation happening over at United. Maybe the real message is that United is thinking of new ways of doing business."

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