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INTERACTIVE TV FOR PASSENGERS IS IN THE AIR

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Interactive television may be years away from entering the home, but its advent away from home is another matter.

A growing number of airline passengers will soon be able to sit back and press the buttons of a computer system that will offer them many of the entertainment options of their living rooms, the business capabilities of their offices and real-time information on where to pick up their baggage and at what gate to make a connecting flight.Northwest Airlines already has such a system - including Nintendo games - in place on several jets, and it plans to add more planes in the coming months.

United Airlines is putting a competing system on its wide-body fleet. British Airways and Singapore Airlines have similar plans. And passengers can play video mah-jongg on China Airlines.

It is the latest attempt by the airline industry to keep passengers entertained on long flights.

Now, passengers can chose from at least four movies, digital audio, a built-in telephone with fax capability, shopping channels and a channel with flight information on baggage, connecting gates and the weather at destination cities.

The systems combine a small television screen, headphones and a remote control device that allows passengers to chose these options from an on-screen menu.

Typically, the airlines are offering some of the services free but charging for others. Nintendo games, for example, cost travelers $4 an hour on Northwest.

Within two years passengers should also be able to make hotel reservations and buy tickets to sporting events and Broadway shows, either paying cash to a flight attendant or using a credit card. Also by then, passengers should be able to watch live news, entertainment and sporting events.

Donna Abrahamson, Northwest's inflight sales specialist who has been watching passengers use the system, acknowledged, "Anyone who is not familiar with computers is scared to death at first."

But with the help of flight attendants and children who love to "show the older passengers how to play the games," she said, adults "will watch movies and play games for hours."