Plugged in the sky

Updated: Jul 31 2006, 05:30am hrs
Indian flyers can fasten their seat belts to experience the next level of in-flight communication services. Early next year, they can work, play, surf, chat online or watch live TV on board a host of Indian airlines. And thats not all. They will also be able to use their own mobile phones. Domestic carriers such as Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways and Air Sahara, as well as the state-owned carriers Air-India and Indian Airlines are gearing up to ensure that their passengers can stay truly connected, 35,000 feet up in the air. Their in-flight broadband service already popular with international carriers such as Lufthansa, Emirates, Air France, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, to name a few, will provide passengers with real-time, high-speed and secure Internet connectivity.

Domestic carriers say that majority of travelers business as well as leisure seek some mode of connectivity while in flight. No wonder, this time around at the Farnborough Air Show, they went scouting for upgrading their in-flight entertainment equipment with communication services being high on their wishlist. With new aircraft joining their fleet, business travelers with a wireless-enabled laptop can send and receive emails, connect real-time with their corporate virtual private networks to stay connected as if they are on the ground. Start your wireless-enabled laptop, let it detect the network, then use a log-in code provided by the airline crew and pay with your credit card or use a pre-established account or frequent flyer points. Once logged on to the airline portal, go wherever you like, including corporate intranets and TV channels at an average speed of 512kbps.

Communicating with your mobile phone is also not an unrealistic scenario. Early next year, Air France intends to undertake a six-month commercial trial using an Airbus A318 fitted with GSM equipment enabling the use of mobile phones and GPRS-enabled devices like the BlackBerry or Treo on board its transatlantic flights. Analysts say that its only a matter of time before Indian carriers start offering advanced communications including mobile connectivity on board.

Jet Airways vice-president (marketing) Gaurang Shetty says, With increasing competition, carriers are looking at ways to differentiate themselves and gain a competitive edge by offering a wide range of in-flight services. Introduction of real-time, high-speed Internet and data communications services is high on the agenda for our domestic and international routes.

However, the UB Group-promoted Kingfisher Airlines seems keen on taking the early mover advantage. UB group chairman Vijay Mallya has already announced plans to have live TV on its flights by March next year. Its fleet of Airbus A320s will be fitted with a satellite dish and live TV will be available in every seat, enabling passengers to watch the World Cup cricket matches.

And geeks on board Air-India and Indian Airlines take note of this fact , too. Buoyed by the prospects of mint-fresh aircraft joining their fleet from October-November this year, they are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that their passengers can email, surf the Net, watch real-time television and even phone friends aboard the long-haul flights . Air-India executive director Jitender Bhargava says, We plan to offer Connexion, Boeings real-time, high-speed Internet and data communications service. Passengers will be able to surf the Net, connect with friends and colleagues in-flight through two-way web chats as well as email, and retrieve critical information from their office network.

However, the low-cost bandwagon Air Deccan, SpiceJet and GoAir does not seem too enthused by the promise of broadband in the skies. An Air Deccan spokesperson says, We were the first domestic airline to provide in-flight entertainment onboard our Airbus aircraft. However, we realised that the cost of installing these gadgets was far too high.

With the customers never-ending desire to stay connected on ground or in the air, its time to get ready to travel in the jet-age.