WASHINGTON -- As far as news conferences go, this one never got off the ground.
USAir promised to take journalists on a 90-minute flight yesterday to try out the world's first all-digital, air-to-ground communications system that features telephones and interactive computer screens at passenger seats.
More than 185 people -- journalists, corporate representatives and special guests of USAir -- responded to the offer.
But after passengers had boarded the refurbished Boeing 757 at Washington National Airport for the flight, USAir discovered it had one problem: It didn't have anyone to fly the plane.
Dave Shipley, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based airline, said the flight crew that was supposed to staff the demonstration flight was diverted at the last minute to a flight to Charlotte, N.C., that was "revenue-producing" -- the industry's term for a flight with paying passengers. Had the crew not been diverted, USAir would have had to cancel the Charlotte flight, he said.
More than hour after the scheduled takeoff time, flight attendants began to quietly inform waiting passengers, some of whom had been strapped in their seats for more than an hour, that the special media flight would not be leaving the runway. Passengers were invited to remain on the plane to try out the new FlightLink phone system , free of charge, for as long as they wanted.
FlightLink, developed by In-Flight Phone Corp. of Oakbrook, Ill., consists of palm-sized telephone handset and a computer screen built into each passenger seat. FlightLink provides air-to-ground phone communications and access to a fax service, stock quotations and video games.
The FlightLink system has been installed on five of USAir's 757s. If the four-month test period goes well, USAir said, it plans to expand the system to five more 757s. Some of those planes fly out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
It remains to be seen how the system performs at 30,000 feet, but from the ground it performed as promised: During yesterday's land-locked test drive of the system, calls went through relatively quickly. Stock prices could be retrieved, and video games were plentiful.
The quality of phone communications, however, was mixed. Some calls were clear, but others were more like a staticky cellular connection.