HARDWARE

Filing from 50,000 Feet

Airlines are adding modem and fax hookups, battery chargers, and digitized telephones to in-flight services.
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USAir and American Airlines recently introduced a service whereby passengers can send flowers without leaving their seats. Romantic, yes -- but not as productive as other developments that are on their way: fold-up display screens, modem hookups, real-time financial news, and other attractions dedicated to in-flight business output. (Since the technologies are in flux and making their way from airline to airline and fleet to fleet, check with your travel agent to find out which airline has what.)

Among 1993's advances, the dozen-or-so airlines that already offer scratchy GTE Airfones (among them USAir, United, American, and Delta) will convert to a digitized signal so pure that a portable computer will be able to use it to transmit data (through an armrest plug-in connection). In its fleet of 757s, USAir also is installing In-Flight Phone's Flightlink, a seat-back VDT-cum-phone to which the business traveler can connect his or her laptop via an attendant-supplied cable. The monitor delivers computer games and market quotes and soon will enable a passenger to make hotel reservations with the swipe of a credit card, tune in to live TV, and receive personal messages sent from the ground.

United's domestic fleet is being upgraded with satellite-communication gear that, by year's end, will allow in-flight use of faxes and modems. And starting this year, selected 747s and 767s on international flights will sport a video-entertainment and telecommunications complex that not only lets passengers send and receive electronic data but also gives them 6 video channels and 24 CD-quality audio channels.

Despite airlines' concentrated attempts to appeal to the business crowd, one limitation so far has been overlooked on longer flights: computer batteries that last less than three hours. American Airlines learned that passengers were plugging their power packs into lavatory shaver outlets for lengthy recharges; later this year the airline will test demand for alternating current by retro-fitting some planes with charging stations -- outside the lavs, of course.

-- Researched by Phaedra Hise

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For executives who prefer travel by corporate craft, the Jetfone TD-3000 ($7,500, from Terra, 505-884-2321) is the only cordless air phone on the market. Available this summer: the Flitefone 800 ($35,000, from Global-Wulfsberg Systems, 206-865-3711), which will offer a digital signal and call handoff (so you'll never lose a call) and will also be capable of sending and receiving faxes.

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Last updated: Apr 1, 1993




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