FAXES IN FLIGHT Pilot program puts screens, keyboards at passengers' fingertips


Plane flights can be incredibly boring and unproductive. Oh, sure, you can pretend to read memos from your briefcase or tap away at the little keyboard on your laptop, but too often you end up snoozing.

That's because flying tends to cut us off from many aspects of reality. While we are suspended in the air, we are also suspended from news of the world around us. Right?

Well, prepare for a world of change.

Someday soon, you will check your luggage, get your boarding pass and make your way to your seat as usual -- only to find yourself facing a glowing monochrome computer screen on the back of the seat in front of you.

Curiouser still, you will discover a handset stowed in your armrest. The handset, embedded with 20 keys, functions as a keyboard, a telephone and a credit card scanner.

Each screen will be connected to its own, hidden IBM-compatible PC, and all those computers will be linked to a desktop-like computer monitored by the cabin crew.

This is FlightLink, a system tied to a $50 million network of 90 ground stations set up to relay data back and forth to these planes. The service was created by In-Flight Phone International, a Chicago-based company, using the latest in digital radio transmitting technologies.

Too far-fetched?

It's already happening to passengers aboard seven jets in the USAir fleet and could spread to the rest of the fleet if successful. In-Flight has just announced it has inked a deal to provide the service on flights of Saudi Arabian Airlines.

By late December, this service will be available on about 100 jetliners of several air carriers including American Airlines, according to In-Flight spokesman Darren Leno.

An even more ambitious system, created by a competing firm, will start showing up in Northwest widebody jets this fall.

But right now, on properly equipped USAir 757s, such devices allow passengers, for $2 per minute, to call anyone on the ground.

The system also allows you to get stock quotes, send fax messages and play such addictive electronic games as Tetris and various high-tech shoot'em-ups.

In a few months, if all the software is written to allow it, these same devices will connect to laptop computers. They will display the latest connecting gate information and airport maps.

The screens also will display weather reports and interactive city guides and will provide reservation services that will let users book hotel rooms, rent cars and buy theater tickets while high in the sky.

It will be possible to buy products from the airline's catalog, pay with your credit card and have them shipped to your home. You may be able to charge your drink orders -- an act of mercy for the flight attendants who often have to scurry around hoping to scrounge change for passengers' $20 bills.

A special paging service will enable people on the ground to send messages to passengers. And an interlinked radio system with 12 channels will provide instant audio updates of the latest in news, music and sports.

During the current shakedown phase, USAir is charging only for phone calls. But eventually, it expects to charge for the rest of these services, though pricing has not been set.

Meanwhile, Northwest Airlines plans this fall to begin outfitting its entire fleet of 747s with a similar system called WorldLink, which will be even more elaborate because the screens on the backs of its seats will be color video screens.

In addition to providing shopping, faxing and information, the WorldLink system, developed by a division of GM-owned Hughes Electronics Corp., will include eight video channels allowing each user to pick among a wide variety of inflight movies and television shows.

"Our research shows the leisure traveler wants entertainment and the business traveler wants to get meaningful work done," said Northwest spokesman Doug Miller. "With WorldLink, you won't be disconnected any more."

In some ways all this is wonderful. In other ways it is a shame.

Once, workaholics could get away from it all by simply jumping in their cars. Or they could go to the movies or to a club. But beepers, faxes and cellular telephones have made any land-based spot a potential office.

Now, it seems, with digital ground-to-air communications coming soon to a jetliner near you, it won't be possible to fly away from your troubles, either.

It remains to be seen whether the ability to intrude on one another in flight will outweigh the advantages of finding new sources of stimulation at 30,000 feet.

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