New Phone System Reaches Passengers During Their Flights With Genstar, You Can Send A Fax Or Call Someone On Another Plane Or On The Ground. Of Course, Others Will Be Able To Call You Right At Your Seat, Too.

Posted: December 20, 1993

For many harried business people, an airline flight offers one of the last refuges from what seem like incessant phone calls. You can settle into a seat and sip your drink, comfortable in the knowledge that no one from the office can find you, right?

Wrong!

By the end of the first quarter of 1994, GTE Airfone will have installed equipment on most Delta and United airplanes and some USAir jets that will enable passengers to receive phone calls in the air. GTE's new system, named GenStar, also will enable passengers to transmit data from personal computers, send and receive faxes, and call people on other aircraft.

GTE and other companies started putting telephones on commercial airliners in 1984, and many business travelers today routinely use them to make calls

from their seats or from a location near the front or back of the plane. But GTE says GenStar is going to be different because of advances in digital technology on the ground and in the air.

The new service will be available on all Delta and United domestic flights, more than 100 jets United uses for international service, and USAir Shuttle flights serving Boston, New York and Washington. About 1,400 aircraft will have the GenStar system by the end of 1994, GTE said.

Each seat on each of the planes will have a telephone handset with a liquid-crystal display screen on the back, a keypad and a jack for a laptop computer or portable fax transmissions. To use the system, you remove the phone from a seatback holder and slide a credit card or telephone calling card through a slot in the phone. A menu on the screen prompts you to select keys to receive incoming calls and access various services.

You do have to take steps if you want to receive a call in flight. With a GTE Airfone card, you use the handset to register to receive calls and put in the number of the seat you're occupying.

You also have to have given ground-bound callers a toll-free number and your 10-digit GTE Airfone account number. The caller on the ground is led through a series of prompts to route the call to the right passenger, and then hangs up and waits.

Fortunately for your fellow passengers, the phone at your seat won't ring. When a call is coming in, the display screen will ask you if you want to accept it. If you say yes, it will instruct you to slide a credit card through the card reader to pay for the call. Then the system will connect you with the caller on the ground by calling the person back.

"There are a lot of steps to follow, but the system does most of the work" through prompting the caller and receiver, GTE spokeswoman Sharon Cohen-Hagar said.

GTE expects most calls on the system to be by business travelers conducting business, but there may be personal use as well, Cohen-Hagar said.

"One man told us that he wished he'd had the system available recently when he was on an airplane and his wife was on the ground in a hospital having a baby," she said. "He wished he could have known immediately."

TRAVEL COSTS STILL RISING. Businesses should expect to pay 4 percent to 6 percent more for air travel in 1994, while hotel rates, car-rental prices and meal and entertainment costs will probably be up about 3 percent, American Express Co. says.

The travel-services firm, which makes an annual forecast of business-travel costs, says major airlines will try to push up fares because of higher labor costs, landing fees, equipment costs and debt servicing. But fares on the big carriers should be held in check by competition from smaller carriers and by sluggish demand for air travel, AmEx said.

Domestic air traffic will increase about 2.7 percent, compared with 4.7 percent in 1993, while international traffic, which went up 7.8 percent this year, will only increase 4.8 percent next year, according to the forecast.

For larger corporations that spend enough with individual airlines to command volume discounts on fares, AmEx said negotiations will be tough next year. While big companies in the past could expect to make deals that cut 35 percent to 45 percent off regular, full-coach fares, corporate discounts could be as little as 5 percent to 15 percent in 1994, the travel agency said.

AmEx said to expect restaurants to raise their prices about 3 percent to 4 percent as they attempt to make up for what some in the business are predicting will be a reduction in spending because of changes in the tax law.

In its budget bill last summer, Congress cut the business-deduction portion of meal and entertainment expenses to 50 percent from 80 percent. For businesses, the cut will have the effect of a 13 percent after-tax increase on a $100 restaurant tab. AmEx said it expects more companies to tighten their rules on providing receipts on business-related meals and the amount that can be spent.

For hotels, AmEx said the outlook for 1994 remains a bit clouded, but it isn't nearly as bad it was in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the industry was in a depression because of an oversupply of rooms and the lousy state of the economy. The average rate for a hotel room will rise 2 percent to 3 percent, marking the first time since 1987 that rates will keep pace with inflation.

In a more detailed report on the state of the hotel industry issued this month, PKF Consulting, a national lodging-advisory firm, said that through the 1993 third quarter, occupancy of U.S. hotel rooms was up 2.2 percent. But the more important measure of average daily room rate was up only 1.1 percent.

Among the reasons hotel rates will remain depressed, PKF added, is that inflation remains low, demand is weak because consumers remain skeptical about their own finances, and some hotels have had their debt restructured in a way that enables them to offer low rates yet still be profitable.

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