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Jet-stream couch potatoes, take heart.

A new antenna, based on technology used in military aircraft, will soon allow airline passengers to watch real-time television in flight.The world's largest aircraft maker, Boeing Co., plans to start making the powerful "phased-array" antenna late next year.

Initially, television viewing is expected to be offered on domestic flights of two or more hours. A year or more after that, the satellite-direct broadcast service is likely to be expanded to long over-water routes.

Providers of on-board communications and entertainment systems such as MCI Communications Corp., BE Aerospace Inc. and the Hughes Electronics Corp. unit of General Motors Corp. predict a strong demand for the antennas and satellite-television services from nearly all their major airline customers.

"It's a feature passengers want," says Marco Lanza, executive vice president of BE Aerospace, which provides aircraft entertainment systems to British Airways, KLM, Air France and others. Now that the antennas will be available, "airlines will find a way to get it on the airplane," he says.

Vendors say the technology is proven and that the only obstacles are financial; airlines have to decide to bankroll installation of the basic equipment needed to add the service to their fleets.

In the past, any antenna powerful enough to draw TV signals from existing satellites would have been too large, and would have disturbed the aerodynamics of the jetliners. The Boeing antenna, however, protrudes less than 1.5 inches from the plane. It's housed in a rectangular box less than 3 feet long and 2 feet wide and is planted atop the jetliner's fuselage between the wings.

Carriers today typically offer only movies and prerecorded and edited television programs. The new systems are expected to carry the same unedited feeds that consumers get on satellite systems at home, says Eddy Hartenstein, president of Hughes's 150-channel DirecTv direct-to-home satellite-television service. Any kind of monitoring or censorship would be cumbersome and costly, he adds.

Vendors estimate rates for the service will be in the $5-to-$10 range per flight in coach; billing would be through credit-card "swipe" devices, headset charges or other means. They also note that because satellites can handle very high volumes of data, the antennas would allow current on-board phones, faxes and other services to be expanded and improved.

Anand Malani of MCI-controlled In-Flight Phone Corp. confirms his company plans to offer turn-key systems to airlines, allowing complete on-board television and telephone systems to be installed at no up-front cost to the carrier. The company and the airlines would split the passenger fees.

In-Flight Phone already has an agreement to provide Houston-based Continental Airlines with broadcast television and radio on board by mid-1997, according to an In-Flight Phone filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Other U.S. carriers such as Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines acknowledge that their interest is strong.

Mr. Hartenstein says interest is also strong among networks and other programming providers and agreements for the sale and distribution of programs to airlines should be in place well before the antennas are installed.

Depending on the level of service, 10 to 75 channels are expected to be available on six-inch, digital-quality screens attached to the back of coach seats or to armrests. Many carriers are already beginning to install such systems in first-class and business-class seating and plan to expand them to coach.

Airlines might also choose to simply replace the current in-flight fare with the TV service, in which case programs would be shown on existing cabin screens. They may offer such specials as "an NFL flight on Sunday night" for business travelers, says Kenneth McNamara, senior vice president at Hughes Avicom International, a unit of Hughes. He says it's just a matter of time before the TV option expands to international flights and is "a service the traveling public will come to expect."

Boeing is betting passengers are ready for such a service now. Travelers often settle into their seats and start working, "but then after about 20 minutes they put it away and start playing solitaire," says C. Gerald King, chief of defense and space systems for Seattle-based Boeing. He says installation of the $100,000 antenna takes about eight hours. Boeing competitors are expected to market their own antennas.

After more than two years of development, Boeing has devised an antenna that electronically scans a vast cone-shaped swath of the atmosphere above a moving airliner, seeking out and locking in a signal from a Hughes DirecTv-system satellite or other service. The antenna's low profile creates little added drag to reduce the jetliner's efficiency. It hasn't been installed on any airliner to date.

Some early on-board entertainment systems, like the ones needed to show TV programs, have struggled to overcome technical problems such as not being able to handle a large volume of transmissions.

But such false starts, along with the still-sporadic availability of entertainment systems and low quality of sound on many existing headsets, have disappointed travelers, says Art Dahl, president of the Minneapolis-based Northwestern Business Travel agency. Vendors say those glitches are being resolved.