New passenger services keep fliers in touch

Rohit Khare (
Wed, 9 Oct 1996 10:59:46 -0400

Lotsa cool stuff comin' down the pike. Should have included the reports WSJ
has been putting out about massagers and intelligent lumbar support, though

In what way did shaver plugs fry laptop power converters? United has
deactivated every last one. I'm thinking about a small, high-efficiency
solar panel that attaches to lightbulbs -- Photons: the ultimate power

Airborne IP service is inevitable -- I hope?



New passenger services keep fliers in touch

41,000 FEET OVER FLORIDA - "New evidence in the Simpson case, new theories
and a different view of the courtroom players," proclaims Greta Van
Susteren, co-host of CNN's Burden of Proof, on three TV screens.

This is up-to-the-minute TV news, but the story here is who's watching it:
110 passengers on this Delta Air Lines Boeing 767, the only airliner in the
world showing live TV.

Ready or not, fliers soon may grasp yet another umbilical cord to Mother
Earth. Fading fast is an era when you could be out of touch with the boss,
loved ones and the latest news because you were in a plane. Communications
services already common on many domestic flights - such as seat phones,
ground-to-air paging and fax services - are killing excuses for being out
of the loop. Live TV will knock off another.

This jet - called the Spirit of Delta because employees bought it for the
company in 1982 - is a flying laboratory for cutting-edge passenger
services. Delta is two months into a six-month test of DirecTV, which
operates like the direct broadcast satellite TV seen in homes. Delta also
is testing electrical outlets in first-class seats so fliers can plug
laptops in and save their batteries. There's a phone in arm's reach of
every seat. Passengers can be paged from the ground, too.

Delta isn't the only airline closing the communications loop. Continental
Airlines will begin installing live TV this spring. Passengers will choose
up to 24 channels. In January, American Airlines will put power ports in
first class and business class on international flights. British Airways
and Singapore Airlines both are testing an interactive entertainment system
that will let fliers gamble, play trivia games with other passengers, shop
and track the progress of a flight.

Catching the Spirit of Delta isn't easy because it doesn't fly the same
route every day. And Delta doesn't know more than 24 hours in advance where
the Spirit will be flying.

Seeing it now

First-class passenger Fernando Fernandez is thrilled when he finds out
Delta will be broadcasting live TV on this 3-hour, 10-minute flight from
Atlanta to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Fernandez, a Norcross, Ga., businessman,
has flown Delta on this route three times the past month. "I don't want to
see Mission: Impossible one more time. Frequent fliers need more options
when they fly," Fernandez says. TV beats watching the same movie again. "I
like to keep up with what's going on in the world."

Across the aisle, Joe McCloskey is thumbing through George magazine with a
Marilyn Monroe-esque Drew Barrymore on the cover. He's bored. "I'd love to
watch ESPN or CNN. I'd pay for it," says McCloskey, who is headed home to
San Juan. McCloskey will have to wait to get his sports fix. Delta only has
the rights to show CNN, Headline News, Discovery Channel and Nick at Nite.

After flight attendants deliver meals of short ribs and steamed vegetables,
passengers throughout the plane are given complimentary headsets. TV
programs are shown on three large screens spaced equally through the plane.
A commercial for Cycle dog food flicks on the screen. A cooking show on the
Discovery Channel appears before CNN comes on. Van Susteren is on, chatting
with Joseph Bosco, author of A Problem of Evidence, a new book about the
O.J. Simpson trial. The picture is sharp and clear.

In seats 2A and 2B, Ross and Lydia Buckley immediately put on their
headsets. The couple are headed for vacation in Nevis, an island east of
Puerto Rico. The Buckleys think live TV will really catch on in planes.
"Bookstores are going to be disappointed," Ross says.

Everyone isn't glued to the screen. Back in coach, the man in 25B is
snoozing. A father in 23A is trying to keep his daughter occupied with a
coloring book. But many of the 94 coach passengers are watching CNN

Jodi Dunlap, Delta's technology expert, is aboard to monitor the live TV
system. "A lot of people still think they're watching a taped show. We're
trying to get the rights to show the World Series . . . later this month,"
says Dunlap, who notes that live broadcasts of the Republican and
Democratic conventions were popular with passengers in August.

A commercial for American Airlines flashes on the screen. "See, we don't
edit anything," says Maurice Maige from Hughes Avicom, which helped Delta
design the TV system. Maige says he helped install a system for TWA to
screen the first in-flight movie in 1961.

What Maige says isn't quite true. If there's an airline accident, CNN has
agreed to notify Delta's operations center before CNN airs the news. The
operations center then contacts pilots, who will shut the TV system down.
Passengers will be told only that the satellite feed has been interrupted.
"We don't want passengers to find out about an accident while they're on a
plane," Dunlap says.

Delta says it plans to install video screens in the backs of seats on this
plane this spring so passengers could watch any channel they want. But it
costs nearly $3 million to install such a system for an entire plane. "We
think we can recoup the cost of the system if we can get passengers to pay
for it. But we can't buy the system if passengers aren't willing to pay,"
says Kathie Lonvick, project manager for Delta. Lonvick says Delta likely
will charge passengers in coach $5 to $8. First- and business-class
passengers will get live TV free.

"I'd pay for live TV, but I still won't watch the commercials," says coach
passenger Minerva Ramirez, a West Virginia doctor.

On Headline News, a gruesome video of fighting on the West Bank is being
shown. Then the screen goes blank. But it isn't a problem with the system.
"Passengers still want their movie," says flight attendant Martina Goscha
as Mission: Impossible appears on the screen. Plus, DirecTV can't broadcast
outside the USA, so Delta can't show TV programs once this plane is over

Power in the seat

Flying the Spirit from San Juan back to Atlanta, Jim Darby is thrilled as
he watches the battery on his laptop charge up. Darby, sitting in first
class, is using an adapter Delta gave him to plug his laptop into a power
port on the seat. A green light shows the power is on. But the outlet,
placed about calf-level on the front of his seat, is an awkward reach.

Darby is having a problem sending the electronic mail he composed on his
way to the airport. He plugged his phone line into a jack on the GTE
Airfone in the armrest but couldn't get a connection to send the e-mail.

But his colleague, Angela Brav, likes the power ports: "I fly to the West
Coast a lot, and I refuse to carry heavy batteries for my laptop."

Goscha, a Delta flight attendant for 17 years, is glad Delta is testing a
power source for laptops. Fliers often ask for a place to plug in theirs.
"Passengers are always trying to go into the bathroom and plug their
computer into the outlet for shavers. It just blows their computer up," she

Delta is considering installing power ports in first-class and
business-class seats on international flights. It will be a while before
coach fliers get power ports, and when they do, they'll have to pay to use
them. "These systems are so expensive to install. We have to make sure it
will generate enough revenue for us to recoup our costs," Lonvick says.

Phoning home

The Spirit of Delta's phone system has some bugs. Several passengers using
the phone to call colleagues get cut off in mid-conversation. Passengers
can receive calls forwarded from a home or office phone, too. It's like
being paged. You register from the seat you're in so calls can be routed to
you. The phone rings and the caller's number appears on the handset. You
decide whether to call back. The cost is a flat $15 if you call back; no
charge if you don't. But several attempts by one passenger to receive a
call from the ground didn't work. Brav says she often has problems with
phone connections on planes. GTE, which provides the phone service, says
the problems happened because the flight's course between San Juan and
Atlanta took the jet over water and out of range of GTE's ground stations.

That's no problem for travelers who like being out of touch. "You can't
work 24 hours a day. When I'm on the plane, I want to relax," says A.P.
Singh, of Huntsville, Ala.

But fliers like Singh are going to find it harder to hide. Delta says it
plans to give fliers access to the Internet from an in-seat video system.
Now, a passenger with the right software in their laptop can tap the
Internet by connecting a laptop into a jack on the seat phone. But it's an
awkward system. "We want people to pull up the Delta web site, plan trips
and book tickets in the air, just like they can do from their home PC,"
Lonvick says.

Coming to your airplane seat: DirectPC.

By Donna Rosato, USA TODAY