In-Flight E-mail, IM Service Takes Wing From JetBlue

Free value-add will support Yahoo Mail and IM, and Wi-Fi-equipped Blackberry models -- but no Web.

JetBlue Airways next week plans to begin testing free wireless Internet access, e-mail and instant messaging for its transcontinental passengers, thanks to a partnership with Yahoo and Research in Motion, maker of the popular Blackberry device.

The discount-fare air carrier's service will first debut Dec. 11, with a morning flight from New York to San Francisco aboard a plane dubbed "Beta Blue," a JetBlue spokesperson said.

"It's just a value-added amenity we feel our customers would enjoy, and adds to the JetBlue experience," company spokesperson Alison Eshelman told "It's another service for our customers to keep in touch with their loved ones on the ground."

The service will give travelers access to Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Instant Messenger on notebook PCs, and e-mail and messaging through Wi-Fi-enabled editions of the Blackberry. At present, there are two compatible Blackberry models, the 8820 and Curve 8320.

The Web itself, and online services from other companies like AOL Instant Messenger, will not be supported, Eshelman said.

Following next week's Beta Blue introduction, JetBlue plans to use the Wi-Fi-enabled plane on other routes, chiefly those flying cross-country.

However, it does not yet have firm plans to expand the service to other planes in its fleet. Eshelman said the program may be rolled out more widely, or undergo changes, based on the response from users.

"We'll listen to their feedback and develop a plan for a future fleet-wide rollout," she said.

The news continues efforts by U.S. carriers to explore the possibility of offering wireless Internet access during flights. Virgin America in September pledged to roll out fleet-wide broadband in 2008. The effort, in partnership with wireless broadband player AirCell, will provide Wi-Fi Internet access for passengers traveling in the continental U.S.

American Airlines, among others, also has indicated its interest in testing services similar to JetBlue's. It, too, has partnered with AirCell for the effort.

The carriers' plans also may mark a changing attitude toward in-flight Wi-Fi from U.S. carriers. Last year, Boeing retreated from its ambitious Connexion in-flight Internet access service, citing a lack of interest by airlines.

However, the difficulties faced by Boeing may also suggest that the efforts by JetBlue, American, Virgin and others could see some turbulence ahead. The aircraft manufacturer warned in 2006 about the "substantial" costs it had incurred in deploying Connexion.

Still, the latest crop of plans may differ enough from Connexion that they prove successful. For one thing, Boeing's product was based on offering Internet access to travelers for a fee -- rather than as a free, value-added offering.

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