A plea to readers to help make in-flight data service work

I hate it when things don't work. I take no joy in reporting on product tests gone awry. I'd much rather have breakthroughs in technology that work flawlessly and, frankly, make my life easier.

I particularly hate it when things don't work on airplanes. I find it unnerving when I see an overhead cargo compartment stuck shut with duct tape. That is a signal to me that the message "seat cushions can be used as flotation devices" cannot be trusted.

But I love it when new gizmos work. And so several Saturdays ago, I boarded a flight to Atlanta with the anticipation I reserve for innovations that promise me the world. The product I was so eager to try was the GTE Airfone, which resides on the seat backs of many of the airlines I fly. I'd seen the RJ-11 data jack on the phones on a previous flight and had read how GTE had upgraded the speed of its data transfer last October. I was prepared to use the Airfone to send and retrieve E-mail, to connect with my Internet service provider, and to fax some notes to my editor's office.

The first good sign when I walked through the cabin was that I didn't see any tape holding the plane together. The next came when I sat down and saw a message flashing on the LCD panel of the phone on the back of the seat facing me: "Improved Data Speed!!! (Send 12 one-page E-mails in one minute)," alternating with "With Airfone service, you can *Check Voice Mail *Check E-mail."

The exclamation points were the first tip-off that GTE was damn proud of the upgraded service. I was Psyched!!! And so, for the next 40 minutes, I sat with my laptop modem plugged into the RJ-11 data jack on the bottom of the handset, explicitly following directions. When I had no luck with the handset facing seat 35D, the stewardess stretched the handset from the row in front of me back to my seat so that I could try that one as well. No luck. I tried everything I could think of. I went into my setup and changed the connecting modem speed on my laptop. I tried dialing a different access number for the E-mail server in the office. Nothing. The voice calls I made during the flight, however, went through fine.

When I landed in Atlanta, I found a pay phone and tried my laptop to make sure that my modem was working. I connected with the E-mail server at the office with ease.

I contemplated popping into the Interfaith Chapel to say a few prayers or, when entreated by a billboard at the airport exit, logging on to jesusveg.com (to learn about Jesus' vegetarian lifestyle), in hopes of having my luck change on the way home. But instead I boarded the rental-car shuttle and went about my business.

Perhaps I should have followed my better instincts. On the flight back I fared no better. When I returned to Boston, I had to figure out what had gone wrong.

My first move was to call 800-AIRFONE. Dottie, the customer-care representative who answered, was very friendly: she told me that most likely my computer wasn't compatible with the GTE system. I told her that I had a pretty ordinary laptop from Dell. She thought that the problem might be that the baud rate (the number of bits transmitted per second) on my modem had been incorrectly configured, but I told her that I'd changed the settings on the modem to try various rates of transmission. She apologized. I then asked Dottie if GTE had a lot of activity on the data jacks. "Quite a bit, sir," she told me.

Once I got off the phone with Dottie, I grew curious about others' experiences with the Airfone, so I called up deja.com, a Web site that allows searches of Internet newsgroups. I searched for airfone and found a lively discussion going on at rec.travel.air. I E-mailed a handful of the people who had been discussing their experiences, and they E-mailed me back a variety of stories about either how they'd been unable to get the service to work or how terribly slow it was. (To be fair, GTE upgraded the Speed!!! in October 1998, and some of the stories predated that.) I was curious about whether my correspondents were comfortable with technology, and thus willing to stick with a product despite its initial recalcitrance, so I asked them what they did for a living. One was a Web master for an international trade association in the energy industry. Another was vice-president of engineering for a San Jose-based publicly traded ISP. A third had a background in telecommunications programming.

Rather than let the problem lie, I decided to call GTE Airfone's corporate offices to see if anyone could help me figure out what had gone wrong. Like Dottie, the rest of the folks at GTE were very affable and eager to solve my problem. (It was "my problem" at this point.) A conference call was set up to connect me with Jim Costello, the vice-president of product and service development, and Greg O'Neill, the director of consumer marketing.

Before the discussion ensued, I had E-mailed Costello all the information about my flight and my computer that I'd given Dottie. The problem, my phone advisers surmised, was that my modem was a "current stealer." "Most modems draw less than 20 milliamps of current," Costello explained. "But there are some that draw more. And those that draw an excessive amount tend to be the ones where we could possibly have a problem." (It had now become "our problem.") The reason that my machine worked on the pay phone, he explained, was that a land line can provide up to 65 milliamps of current.

"We designed the system," Costello explained, "so that 72 people could be active simultaneously, with their handsets fully powered up." Which meant, of course, that the number of milliamps that each phone could handle had to register pretty low on the current scale.

I was baffled. Why design a system that couldn't accommodate as many types of machines as possible? How likely was it that 72 people toting laptops with modems would board the same plane and need to use their handsets at the same time?

Costello responded that when GTE designed the system, 20 milliamps was more than enough to accommodate most modems. I reported that I wasn't the only person who'd had trouble getting the data and fax functions to work. Then we agreed to make an exchange: marketing man O'Neill offered to send me comments from satisfied users, and I agreed to forward him E-mails from frustrated ones. (Mine had names and E-mail addresses; his didn't.) "Just to put it in perspective," O'Neill told me, "we got 5,000 data calls last week, and only 5 involved any kind of complaint." He told me that users can dial 0 on the Airfone and, if they walk through the menus, the IVRU (Interactive Voice Response Unit) will reel off a list of modems (about 19 at the time this column went to press) that GTE knows the Airfone is compatible with. The list also appears on the Airfone Web site.

"The net-net from my perspective," added O'Neill, "is: Is this product perfect? Absolutely not. Is it the best that's out there right now? I think absolutely. If users have an issue about modem compatibility, please E-mail or call in the specific model, and we'd be happy to test it."

That, say the folks at GTE, is how the company can find out which modems don't work and will help it on its quest to find what Costello referred to as "the holy modem."

So here's what I'd like you to do. I know it's asking a lot (it may cost you a few bucks; a three-minute domestic Airfone call costs roughly $12.83), but consider your efforts part of a vast campaign to make good products work better. I'd like you to bring your laptop (or personal digital assistant if it has modem capabilities) with you on your next flight. Try to retrieve your E-mail, send a fax, or connect to your ISP. If the people in the seats next to you have their laptops in tow, ask them to try to connect as well. If you need someone to send a message to, E-mail me at jeff.seglin@inc.com or fax me at 617-248-8090. Let's get as many of those 72 handsets working at the same time as possible.

Report back on your experience--positive or negative--to the GTE Airfone folks by calling its Customer Care Center at 800-AIRFONE between the hours of 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. (CST), Monday through Friday. Or E-mail them at customercare@airfone.com as well as feedback@airfone.com (and send me a copy). Or send them a fax at 800-909-7249. Or go out to www.airfone.com/contact.html and drop them a line. Have your flight information available (airline, flight number, seat number, date and time of flight) as well as the make and, if possible, the model number of your modem. (If you have any trouble contacting the company, call Inc. Technology at 617-248-8021 and a recorded message will give you more options.)

I'd love to hear what type of response you get. Consider yourself enlisted in the never-ending quest to make things work.

When he's not holding his stories together with duct tape, Jeffrey L. Seglin is an editor-at-large at Inc.