Techno: Fasten your seat belts

In-flight entertainment Internet, e-mail, even casinos are no longer flights of fancy. . Illustration by Stephen Parkes
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Flying used to be a matter of idling away the hours with a book or crossword and, if you were lucky, there was a film to watch on a big screen with bleached-out colour and someone's head in the way. Now, aircraft cabins are becoming extensions of living rooms and offices. Since Virgin Atlantic first launched individual TVs to all classes of passenger in 1991, it has become more common for everyone to have their own screen and handset to control entertainment and game choices. Screens are either the manoeuvreable arm-rest version or fixed in the back of the head rest on the seat in front. Virgin offers 21 film and TV channels, nine radio channels, and more than a dozen Nintendo games. Each seat also has its own phone, allowing you to call anywhere in the world - though you'll be charged $9 a minute for the privilege (interestingly, Economy passengers make the most calls).

All the major airlines will offer a similar service on their longer routes, and many enhanced services are also available. Virgin is introducing DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) players in its Upper Class cabins, and passengers on Malaysia Airlines can send Faxgrams (short fax messages) across the world. A number of airlines offer a world-wide Interflora service, and duty-free goods can be ordered and delivered to an address of your choice. These services are accessed through the handset, and passengers just follow the instruction on screen.

Japan Airlines is even moving on from the screen-and-console format. Last year it introduced Eye Trek face- mounted display units on its long-haul routes. Currently only available in First Class, these are worn like a pair of sunglasses. The liquid crystal display is so close to your eyes it gives the impression of watching a 62in screen. The unit only weighs 110g and enables the passenger to watch a video while lying down on a sleeper seat. However, it is not recommended for children and switches off automatically after two-and-half hours use to prevent eye strain. It can also aggravate feelings of air sickness.

For the business person who finds travelling a waste of valuable time which would be better spent preparing cost reports, Malaysia Airlines provides the first "office in the sky". This is a private work area on board the plane, equipped with a laptop computer, printer, multimedia library, telephone, fax and stationary so the busy executive can feel right at home. United Airlines promises a "total office environment" for its First Suite passengers, with individual desk, phone, laptop space and power point. Perhaps the most beneficial innovation are its "hush" environment noise-reduction headsets, which cut out the background noise of the plane.

As well as offering a personal screen monitor with movies, games and hourly updated news and sport, Lauda Air has a flying casino. Passengers can play roulette, blackjack, poker or slot machines on their consoles. Payments are by credit card or through the purchase of Fun Cards. Winnings are either credited to your card or sent on later for Fun Card players. Losses are limited to $500 per passenger, to prevent people losing too much money on long flights, and perhaps precipitating acts of air rage.

Because modern planes have satellite communication systems, there is great potential for even more sophisticated technology. British Airways is already planning to install links which, in the case of an on-board emergency, can transmit data such as heart rates and blood pressure to medical experts on the ground. Doctors monitor the patient, make a diagnosis and recommend the best course of action. Virgin, among others, is investigating e-mail and internet connection. Currently, the satellite band-widths are not wide enough to accommodate real-time web surfing, but in the meantime it is possible to receive "batch information" - specific data that a passenger needs to be updated on during the flight (stock prices, for example). This system also allows up-to-date news programmes to be received during flights, rather than relying on pre-recorded cassettes. Eventually, operators would like to offer satellite TV on demand, which means you could sit and flick channels just as you do on the couch at home

Services are not available on all routes, please check before booking. Reservations numbers: British Airways, 0345 222 111; Japan Airlines, 0345 747 777; Lauda Air, 0171-630 5924; Malaysia Airlines, 0171-341 2020; United Airlines, 08458 444 777; Virgin Atlantic, 01293 747 747