JetBlue will begin offering passengers free e-mail access on one of its airplanes next week as Internet connections that have become ubiquitous on the ground begin taking to the skies.
An Airbus-320 passenger jet called "BetaBlue" is equipped with wireless Internet antennae in the ceiling and a computer server that relays signals to mobile telephone towers on the ground.
BetaBlue will make its commercial flight debut Tuesday on a route from New York City to San Francisco.
Passengers will be able to connect to Yahoo Mail and instant messaging services via wireless Internet connections on laptops or with "Wi-Fi" enabled BlackBerry handheld devices, according to the US-based airline.
JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV customized the system and partnered with Yahoo because the US Internet titan's Web-based message service is the most widely used in the nation, according to airline spokeswoman Alison Eshelman.
Yahoo executives and news reporters were among the passengers taken for a demonstration flight on the jet this week.
"It was just like you were sitting at your computer at home," said Eshelman, who took part in the demo flight. "It was crazy to be able to do it in-flight."
Implementing the Internet service required approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates signals coming from jets, and the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio frequency usage.
The FAA has refused to allow mobile telephone signals to be beamed from passenger jets, creating what some passengers see as high-flying havens from the cacophony of cell phone chatter on the ground.
While JetBlue will be the first US airline to provide an in-flight Internet service, rival airlines American, Virgin America, and Alaska Air are working on giving passengers online connectivity beginning next year.
US airborne telecommunications firm Aircell says systems it is developing for American and Virgin will allow passengers to access e-mail, the Internet, or office networks using laptops, iPhones, BlackBerrys and other portable gadgets with Wi-Fi connectivity.
Fees for the services will be disclosed when they launch, according to the airlines.
"Travelers are already bringing their own Wi-Fi enabled devices onto planes," said Aircell chief executive Jack Blumenstein.
"Airline customers across the US list broadband access in flight as one of their top wishes."
Industry analysts expect 2008 to be the year in-flight Internet begins to take-off.