California Educational Data Processing Association
The DataBus - Vol. 36, No. 2
February-March, 1996

High Technology at 32,000 Feet

Gadgetry: Airborne technology center provides conveniences and entertainment.

Addison Ching

Have you flown recently? If you haven't, you're in for a surprise!

As I entered the America West Boeing 737, I noticed something different: the passenger seats were slightly higher than ones I've sat on before. Did complaints about stiff necks prompt Boeing to redesign their seats?

As I sat in my seat, I noticed something new: above the traditional fold-down tray table (stowed for takeoff and landing, of course) was a brilliantly-lit LCD panel advertising the airline's new seat-based information center. As I looked around, I noticed that each seat was equipped with these devices.

A new toy! Ok, let's see what it can do! What's this? A tethered keyboard stored in the seat's armrest? How clever! And you wouldn't even know it was there unless you made an effort to actually look for it! I noticed that there is a clever slot designed into one side of the keyboard's edge for swiping a credit card. But let's see if there is anything available that doesn't require a credit card.

The screen displays a variety of information functions that are independently available to each passenger. The tethered keyboard, about the size of a television remote control (about 2" by 8") is dual-sided; one side contains a standard numeric keypad with an added set of keys for navigating the screen's cursor, and the other side of the keyboard is an alphanumeric keyboard, also with a set of directional keys. In the handrest next to where the keyboard is stored (when pushed in all the way it also serves as an on/off switch for the display) is a familiar-looking RJ-11 jack which can be used to connect to your computer for modem and/or FAX transmissions from your seat!

There is a game arcade of several games probably geared to entertain restless younger travelers. The use of the arcade requires credit card payment.

Next is the section on travel services. Apparently you can connect directly through to a travel agency and make reservations for air travel and accommodations. Probably a nice convenience for businesspersons who spend most of their time in the air. Come on, get a life!

Gifts and shopping, interactive style, is a video catalog of what you sometimes find in the seat pocket catalogs. Nice stuff to look at and drool over, but I wonder if anyone ever orders anything from these sources?

Finally, the part we've all been waiting for, the Information Services. This is, perhaps, the most entertaining part of the whole setup, and everything that's available here is free. You navigate through submenus to get information about airport layouts (of course, only those served by the airline) and connecting gate information. Of interest to me (and the passenger next to me who became inquisitive after he saw me fooling around with the gadget) was the section on News Services. This section contains up-to-date news articles from newpapers in twenty metropolitan U.S. areas. You could easily forget about that boring jaunt from Sacramento to Orange ounty by immersing yourself in this virtual newsstand. Last, but not least, Stock Quotations are available to those that follow that sort of thing. The service requires a credit card, but apparently to track who's using it because there was no charge at the time of the flight.

Is this hi-tech information center-in-the-sky gadgetry worth the expense? At first glance, very few passengers even bothered to give the device a try; most probably thought it was a bothersome advertisement and didn't connect the display with an interactive information system. Like anything hi-tech, it might catch on at a later time when enough publicity has been given to it and more people become accustomed to using it. However, I'm one air traveller who will be looking forward to the next time that I can again experience this airborne information network.

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