In-flight pastimes go high-tech; Airlines: Electronic books that can store up to 4,000 pages of type are giving passengers more control over their entertainment.


When Lori Ketterling spotted the videocassette-sized electronic device at the far end of the British Airways lounge, she decided it had to be the latest electronic scheduler-address book.

A longtime fan of techno-gadgets, she told herself that she and her daughter Lindsey, 11, would have to try it if given the chance before their flight left for London.

"I was surprised when I discovered it was a book," the American Red Cross fund-raiser said when she was offered one of the devices about 30 minutes after arriving in the lounge.

"I learned two things about interest rates and about MCI Worldcom dropping their calling card plan that I wouldn't have known," she said while browsing that morning's electronic version of The Wall Street Journal.

For British Airways, the world's largest international carrier, the hand-held "Rocket e-Books" are the latest in a long line of high-technology improvements the airline has offered its passengers, not the least of which was the Concorde Supersonic airliner that was introduced 25 years ago.

British Airways was one of the world's first airlines to offer personal video screens in first and business class, and earlier this year it became the first major European airline to equip its planes with heart defibrillators and monitors.

In an era when competitors offer flights to the same location for virtually the same price, gadgets increasingly are one of the attractions that carriers use to set themselves apart.

In August, for instance, American Airlines, the dominant carrier on most U.S. to Latin America routes, announced it would become the world's first airline to install DVD in-flight video players, beginning Sept. 1 on scheduled flights between Miami and Buenos Aires. Later this year, the airline said, it will offer DVD players to first-class passengers on flights to London from its hubs in Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Miami.

Similarly, electronic books would give British Airways another way to offer first-class and business passengers a custom service with a personal device -- a gadget loaded with the user's choice of reading material displayed on a screen. Buttons are used to "turn the page" or "open" another article.

Users are also able to choose between two sizes of type for the text, a boon to those whose eyesight has been strained by their work computers. And because the screens are backlighted, travelers don't need an overhead light to read.

A typical international flight might need as many as 50 of the books, which retail for about $350 each, to accommodate the passengers. Therefore, buying several thousand machines is no slam-dunk decision for British Airways.

"We're trying to determine how this might be of value to our customers in the future, and how we might continue to be able to offer our customers something that is different and leading in technology," said Jim Barry, BA's manager of customer service at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He said the airline chose Chicago for the test because of the large number of business-class passengers that board here.

So new is the technology that British Airways personnel are uncertain exactly how to put the program together, but they believe electronic books have strong potential.

Spokesmen for the airline suggest that first-class and business-class passengers could check out the electronic devices and have them loaded in the terminal or on board with their choice of books, magazines, newspapers or other information. Initially, at least, the airline probably will require the gadgets be turned in when the flight arrives in London.

Not only do the electronic books represent a novel, high-tech perquisite for British Airways passengers -- no more shuffling through worn magazines for an interesting title or vying for a newspaper -- uses for the technology are sure to grow.

The airline already has learned there is great interest among business-class customers for access to U.S. stock market information after the 4 p.m. Eastern time close of trading -- something no international carrier is able to deliver once a plane is airborne. Most international flights bound for Europe begin departing O'Hare about 5 p.m.; it would be easy to make fresh business and market information available for loading into electronic books.

Russell Trezise, an interactive marketing project manager, said the airline became intrigued by the electronic books shortly after they were introduced last year by NuvoMedia Inc., a 2-year-old Mountain View, Calif., high-tech firm that has staked its future on the devices.

At that time, electronic books cost about $500 each. Since then, prices have come down to about $350 a copy, still a sizable investment for the airline. Weighing not much more than a half-liter bottle of water, the books are capable of holding the contents of 4,000 pages of type more than enough space for a copy of "War and Peace," a copy of Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" and still have room for Tom Clancy's newest, "Rainbow Six."

Pub Date: 09/13/99

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