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iFly Me!

Up to six airlines will soon make it easier to use your iPod in flight by providing power connections at each seat along with an adapter to enable viewing video content on a seat-back screen. Continental, Delta, Emirates, and United will start rolling out these upgrades in 2007. Air France and KLM are in talks with Apple, but have not entered into agreement for the services. (Apple’s press release said the latter two airlines are committed, but in a Reuters story, Air France and KLM said it was too early to state that.)

Of course, not all the planes in these airlines’ fleets have seat-back screens. And it costs a fortune to run wiring through existing planes; this sort of wiring is also a prime suspect in some other unexplained plane crashes, so airlines are wary of new systems. Thus I imagine it will be particular long-haul planes that already have some manner of per-seat wiring in place that will receive these upgrades first. For a 6- or 10- or 14-hour flight, not having to bring extra charging devices to use your iPod will be a blessed relief for many travelers. But they’ll have to be sure, first, that the planes on their itinerary are all powered up.

What’s more interesting to me is how this iPod announcement intersects with future in-flight broadband services that will be offered over Wi-Fi. While Connexion by Boeing’s pioneering satellite-based broadband service – which provided service only on long-haul international routes – will be shut down by year’s end after $1 billion or more in losses, other parties are just about to launch theirs.

With an onboard Wi-Fi network, the airlines could conceivably work with Apple to place media servers stocked with the iTunes Store’s library (or the most popular parts of it) online for purchase. True, iTunes currently uses a centralized purchase and digital-rights management (DRM) wrapping system. But with a low-bandwidth backchannel to Apple for the media server to check your account – well, you could grab the current episode of Lost while over the Atlantic and get it in five minutes, not fifty, using local area network speeds.

The iPod lacks Wi-Fi right now, of course, so this is a non-starter, unless you were using your laptop to purchase music onboard and then transfer that music to your iPod. Too much friction, I’m sure. But airlines might be able to sell pay-per-seat rights to movies and TV shows that would be stored on such a media server, too. (You could watch movies and listen to music on your laptop, but laptop batteries can support video playback for shorter periods than the latest iPods.)

An airline electronics integrator mentioned in Apple’s press release, Panasonic Avionics Corporation, is nearing a self-imposed deadline on launching a high-speed in-flight network that will resemble Boeing’s but use much cheaper components and have more bandwidth. Apple partnering with Panasonic would put them at the forefront of these new efforts. I spoke to Panasonic a few weeks ago, and they (like all airlines and train operators I’ve spoken to) put on-board media servers for streaming content at the top of their list of features for the local network. The step to providing content you can purchase and download is just a small one.

Two other satellite-based firms are launching their offerings with mobile phones in 2007 – OnAir and AeroMobile – and Air France and Emirates are two of the five early customers of the two companies. Internet access will follow, although it might be expensive via these two firms, which will use a different satellite network than Boeing did and Panasonic will. In the United States, AirCell recently closed on a license for relatively inexpensive air-to-ground broadband communications, and Continental, Delta, and United – along with American and Northwest – will be among the early customers for their service.

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