The Brancatelli File



October 1, 1994 -- Commercial jetliners always have been impenetrable cocoons: when you were flying, you couldn't be reached by telephone and you certainly had no idea of what was happening back on earth. Slowly, however, high-tech devices are allowing travelers to slice through the isolation.

The most advanced new system is called "FlightLink," an at-your-seat personal communications center that incorporates a telephone, a VGA viewing screen, a keyboard, a game controller, and a credit-card reader. What can FlightLink do? Just about everything.

The system offers air-to-ground calling, of course, and conference calling. It allows passengers to play (for $3 per flight) a dozen familiar computer games. An integrated dataport allows travelers to send data and faxes from laptop computers at 9600 baud. Twelve channels of live radio broadcasts, produced by ABC Radio, are being developed. FlightLink will also be able to deliver several channels of inflight movies. Passengers will be able to check local weather conditions, get on-screen information about the city to which they are flying, or shop from the Lands' End or SkyMall catalogs.

By the end of the year, America West Airlines says it will have installed FlightLink at every seat on all 85 of its jets. The seatback systems also are being installed on USAir and Continental jets. Northwest Airlines is installing a competitive system, called WorldLink, on its jets.

Even without FlightLink, however, live radio is already broadcast to more than 400 planes operated by United, Delta and Northwest. Called USAToday SkyRadio, the custom service is delivered free of charge through existing at-seat headphones. "We're using technology from the Patriot missile to deliver the broadcasts to the [antennas mounted on the] jets," explains Frank Barnako, SkyRadio's director of news. "Consider us a peace dividend of the Gulf War."

Every Delta and Northwest flight equipped for audio receives two channels of SkyRadio. One is an all-news station that operates 24 hours a day. The second is a sports channel: it offers around-the-clock sports talk and live broadcasts of professional football, basketball, and baseball games. United flights offer the news and sports channels, and also "Viewpoints," a talk-radio station in the sky.

Perhaps the most practical new bit of inflight communications technology comes from GTE Airfone, however. Almost ten years to the date after it first offered air-to-ground telephone service, GTE Airfone is now introducing a service that allows earth-bound callers to dial airline passengers.

The GenStar system of ground-to-air telephone calls isn't cheap (about $2.50 a minute for domestic calls, plus a set-up charge), it isn't simple (ground callers must have a passenger's code number, and passengers must activate their in-flight telephone), and it isn't fast (completing a call takes about a minute and requires a relay of ground-to-air-to-ground connections), but the technology means the end of the inflight cocoon. For the first time since the Wright Brothers took flight, someone on the ground can reach someone in the air.

GTE says GenStar was expected to be available on "several hundred" planes by the end of the year. The phones were also expected to have data and fax capacities by the end of October.

This column originally appeared in Home Office Computing magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.