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Struggling United Airlines could this year become the first US carrier to provide passengers with in-flight access to the internet.

United is to equip its fleet of aircraft with WiFi, after the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided that 802.11 b/g technology does not, in fact, harm the operation of an in-flight aircraft.

United, the World's second largest airline, wants to make WiFi-based internet access available on all its flights, after an initial rollout on domestic Boeing 757-200s.

"This certification is a crucial step to bring this in-flight wireless access to our customers," United said in a statement.

Analysts see Wi-Fi as yet another way to fleece the weary business traveler and carefree holiday. Forrester says 38 per cent of frequent flyers want in-flight access to the internet, and are willing to pay up to $25 per flight for the privilege. Lufthansa charges $29.95 a flight or $9.95 per half hour for onboard internet access.

That's potentially great news for United, which is struggling to get clear of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and reverse a $1.6bn annual loss. Like many US carriers, United is wrestling with rising fuel prices and increased competition from an emerging generation of low-cost carriers in the saturated US market.

It's not money in the bank, though. First, United most outlast this Fall's planned "Air-to-Ground" spectrum allocation by the FCC for airborne WiFi services, when the US government is expected to sell service providers up to 8Mhz of frequency. United hopes it can also emerge from Chapter 11 during the Fall.

Next, United must stump up the cash for rollout of Wi-Fi across a fleet of 450 aircraft. That will be a particularly tricky hurdle to clear, coming at a time when management is under pressure to cut staffing and infrastructure costs.®

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