Global Airline Competition: Can You Hear Us Now? - Page 2

"In order for U.S. carriers to remain competitive, any in-flight connectivity service must support a global reach," Paul Domorski, president and CEO of EMS Technologies, said. "There's a more rapid rate [of cell phone in-flight use] outside the U.S. than inside the U.S."

EMS is a little known but long time player in the avionics market. EMS developed electronically controlled antenna for space flight and teamed with JetBlue Airlines to deliver live television service for passengers. Building on that success, JetBlue is the first U.S. airline to offer free e-mail and text messaging.

Other domestic carriers aim to provide full web surfing services. American Airlines is testing broadband on its Boeing 767-200s. Meanwhile Southwest Airlines recently announced it planned to launch broadband service by this summer. Alaska Airlines is also close to rolling out broadband service on its flights.

According to American Airlines, its broadband service will provide customers with an Internet connection, VPN access, and e-mail capabilities through all Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, PDAs and portable gaming devices.

"There's a tremendous amount of intrigue and appeal for travelers to be able to utilize the Internet when traveling 30,000 feet above the United States at 500 miles per hour," Dan Garton, American's executive vice president for marketing, said in a January statement introducing the service. "Connectivity is important to our business customers and those who want to use their PDAs and laptops for real-time, full-service, in-flight, broadband Internet, e-mail and VPN."

JetBlue is a bit more circumspect about airline broadband service.

"The majority of frequent business and leisure travelers want some type of connectivity," said Brett Muney, JetBlue's general manager of product development. "But, it becomes a question of the business model and whether airlines offer this for free or whether they charge a fee."

Muney added it's all a matter of what the customer wants. "Our customers have told us they will support silent options like e-mail and instant messaging, but the ability to talk on cell phones will interfere with their core JetBlue experience," he said.

EMS' Domorski said U.S. use of cell phones on planes is inevitable.

"It is not really a question of 'if' airlines are going to make mobile communications to the flying public but 'when' and 'how,'" Domorski said. "We should demand that our regulatory agencies recognize the power of the market and support innovation in both technology and business models aimed at making the passenger experience a richer one."

And, perhaps, a noisier one.