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UAL Passengers OK to Surf Web in Flight
By Reuters

CHICAGO (Reuters)—United Airlines on Monday said it received government approval to install equipment on planes that eventually will give passengers wireless Internet access on flights.

United, a unit of UAL Corp., is the first domestic airline to win Federal Aviation Administration approval to equip its planes with technology that provides Wi-Fi, a short-range signal used for connecting laptop computers to the Internet.

"Our research shows that connecting to the Internet is customers' most preferred form of communication to the ground, and this certification is a crucial step to bring this in-flight wireless access to our customers," said Dennis Cary, United's senior vice president in charge of marketing.

The No. 2 largest U.S. airline and Verizon Airfone received FAA approval after the two companies demonstrated that the use of wireless technology within the cabin does not affect the aircraft's operation.

The approval applies only to the cabin of United's B757-200 aircraft, which was used in the test. But United said it plans eventually to enable high-speed wireless Internet access on all its planes.

German airline Lufthansa already allows passengers access to wireless technology during flights.

The Federal Communications Commission will determine when customers can begin to use Wi-Fi on United flights. The airline plans to hold an "air-to-ground" spectrum auction to choose which service providers will provide onboard Internet access.

United's FAA approval comes as major carriers are evaluating their in-flight perks, eliminating those that erode airline revenue. Some carriers have begun charging for in-flight snacks that used to be free.

United has not yet said what it will charge for the Wi-Fi service.

It remains to be seen how much demand there is for in-flight Internet access, one expert said.

"There's sort of a growing sense among frequent business travelers that they'd just as soon be left alone," said Jon Ash, an aviation consultant with Intervistas-ga2.

He said many travelers may prefer to spend their flight time relaxing rather than surfing the Web.

Ash noted a similar debate on the use of cell phones during flights. Some worry that the use of cell phones on airplanes could pose a safety hazard, while others simply bemoan the loud, annoying chatter. At present, cell phones and other communication devices must be switched off in flight.

Copyright Reuters 2005.
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