Innovation: Personal services reach new heights: Airline passengers key into multimedia from their seat backs

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The Independent Online
AIRLINE passengers are about to be embroiled in another battle of incentives between the carriers with the introduction of back-of-the-seat multimedia systems that use satellite communications to deliver entertainment, information and shopping.

Passengers who cannot find a potboiler to interest them at the airport bookshop will be able to watch a movie (some before they go on release in the UK), play computer games, hire a car, and send flowers.

Of course, you can already watch a film over the Atlantic, but it has to be the same one as your fellow passengers. You can also go shopping - from the duty-free trolley. And since 1991 it has been possible to make phone calls from some planes. But the new interactive services will be controlled entirely by the passenger, using a keypad in the arm rest to control a six-inch screen in the seat back.

There will be a range of movies, and once one is selected from the central store held on the plane it will be downloaded to the personal computer at each seat, allowing passengers to control it in the same way as the video machine at home. This will also apply to the music selection. And for the first time there will be access to services such as shopping, car rental, hotel reservations, electronic maps of the city of destination, broadcast news, weather forecasts and real time stock market information.

The range of services will depend on the airlines, which will customise their systems to provide irresistible come-ons for passengers. Some will be free, others will be paid for.

These systems have three elements: a satellite communications system; seat-back hardware incorporating screens, telephones, keypads and credit card swipe slots; and a network linking planes to the ground and managing the interface to the service providers.

One of the main providers of the network services will be BT. It has completed the development of software that will run on any of the available hardware and is now working with several of the world's major airlines on customising the service for their aircraft.

In the past month Virgin Atlantic and British Airways have announced plans to install multimedia systems. Virgin will work with BT; BA is yet to announce which network it will use. For BA this represents an investment of pounds 80m and involves kitting out 30,000 seatbacks. Singapore Airlines, which is a BT customer, is investing pounds 50m. BT is also collaborating with the German airline, Lufthansa.

BT will provide end-to-end integration of the services, negotiating agreements with hardware suppliers and service providers, processing all data and handling revenue collection for the airlines.

Data will be transmitted to the ground over the Skyphone network, which was set up in 1989 to handle telephone calls from planes. Skyphone, a joint venture between BT, Singapore Telecom and Norwegian Telecom, offers global coverage no matter where the plane is.

Peter Cheah, manager of BT's airline services, says development of the infrastructure and the software to deliver these services reprents a significant investment by BT. BT is lining up its own service providers - it already has an agreement with Interflora, and is talking to car rental companies and news services.

Mr Cheah says service providers see this technology opening up a major new market and are beating a path to the door. But he will not say how much they will pay BT or the airlines for the privilege of accessing such a captive market. Research indicates that passengers are keen to start spending as soon as they get on the plane, and that the systems will pay for themselves in a few years.

He adds that some airlines already have their own relationships with suppliers (for example, BA has a deal with Hertz Car Rentals), and in that case BT will work with them.

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