Flying Phones Get Cheaper And Smarter

David Bartholomew likes to keep in touch with his office and family when he travels--even when he's in the air. But although the Dallas real estate executive runs up a $5,000 annual phone bill on planes, he isn't happy with the service. "I often get cut off," he gripes. Now, thanks to the breakup of GTE Airfone's decade-long monopoly, Bartholomew and others will find "sky calling" friendlier. They'll get better-quality calls and added services.

Competition is already having an impact on prices. GTE Airfone has been charging a $2.50 setup charge, plus $2.50 per minute for the call, but it's starting to offer deals. Under the new Home & Office program, the setup and per-minute rates will run $1.88 each for two numbers a customer picks. You can sign up on the plane by dialing "0" or in advance by calling 800 247-3663.

Not to be outdone, In-Flight Phone is junking the setup charge and going with a flat $2 per-minute rate. Claircom Communications is retaining a $2 setup fee but lowering its basic rate from $2.50 to $2 a minute. Claircom is also giving gate agents of Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines $10 coupons to hand out. By sending in the coupon, passengers enter a sweepstakes for a free trip. If you're on Alaska and use a Claircom phone to order from the SkyMall catalog, you'll get 15% off.

FAX AWAY. All the competitors want to turn planes into flying offices. GTE Airfone has installed fax machines. In-Flight's fax system works in conjunction with a paperback-size screen above the tray table. For $3, you can type and send a message on the screen, using a keypad on the handset in the armrest. For 75 cents per quote, passengers can check stocks. For $3, they can play games. At no charge, they can check connecting gate information or make car and airline reservations.

And starting in the fall, passengers will be able to receive calls onboard. All they have to do is swipe their credit card through the phone at their seat, which tells the ground station the person's flight and seat number. Then the caller can dial a toll-free number and get connected to the seat.

If all the innovations work as planned, frequent fliers may be so overworked that they'll long for the days when they could say to the folks at headquarters: "I'll call you when I land."

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