Chicago United Airlines, hoping for an edge in the competition for business travelers, plans to be the first airline to offer two-way e-mail capability aboard all its domestic flights.
By the end of the year, passengers on all U.S. flights will be able to plug their laptops into jacks on the Verizon Airfone handsets, which will use technology by Tenzing Communications to transmit e-mails.
United has offered its service on a trial basis on some 767 domestic aircraft since December -- charging $5.99 per flight for instant messaging, one-way text messaging and select news, weather and other information. It is now expanding with e-mail, which increases the cost to $15.98 but enables passengers to send and receive e-mail, including attachments.
An additional 10 cents will be added for each kilobyte of data over 2 kilobytes.
John Tague, United's executive vice president for customer initiatives, said the expanded offering illustrates the airline's focus on adding products and services that are "useful, affordable and in line with what travelers are asking for."
"The availability of e-mail is critical to business fliers," added Bill Pallone, president of Verizon Airfone.
Airline consultant Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., hailed the move by the airline, which is restructuring in federal bankruptcy court after losing millions of dollars.
"I don't know about the average person sitting down and spending 20 bucks to send e-mails to Mama," Boyd said. "But it shows some innovation happening over at United. Maybe the real message is that United is thinking of new ways of doing business."
United isn't first with the e-skies concept. Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, British Airways and Scandinavian Airlines System are all trying out or have committed to using a satellite high-speed Internet service offered by Boeing's Connexion this year.
United and several other airlines, including American and Delta, committed in 2001 to buy the service by Connexion, a competitor to Seattle-based Tenzing, which also now counts Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic among its customers. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks scrapped those plans, when the drop in air travel demand forced carriers into a fight for their survival.