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Airlines woo business travelers with luxury perks

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Business travelers are winning more airborne perks these days as airlines compete for big-ticket customers by offering the latest in wireless computing and high-speed Internet convenience.

"The big airlines are absolutely throwing goodies and perks at that relatively small percentage of customers who generate most of their revenues," said Ed Perkins, a consumer advocate for the American Society of Travel Agents.

Travelers on Delta Air Lines Inc. will have to act quickly, though. The airline's offer of a free Palm VII hand-held computer - the one with built-in Web software - expires Friday.

One per customer, please.

Coach travelers need not apply.

Only passengers buying BusinessElite - what Delta calls seats that "outclass business class" - over the airline's Web site qualify.

Delta ran its first Palm promotion in February with travel originating on the East Coast. An airline spokeswoman said it was so popular that it was expanded.

Virgin Atlantic is offering a competing hand-held computer - the Visor by Handspring - to travelers who sign up for its frequent-flier program and buy a ticket to London. But not just any ticket: You have to buy a pair of "premier," or business class, tickets or one "upper level," or first class, fare to palm the freebie.

Virgin has been characteristically cheeky about the promotion, referring in advertising to the Visor as the "executive assistant" that fliers can have a guilt-free fling with.

American Airlines is offering a different computing experience to business travelers. As of mid-May, fliers who are also members of the Admirals Club can plug their laptops into a high-speed network inside 32 U.S. clubs and connect to the Internet or their company's LAN.

"More and more of our business passengers carry laptops, and they are looking for ways to increase their productivity while using that equipment on the road," said Scott Nason, American Airlines' vice president of information technology services and chief information officer.

In addition to being Admirals Club members - which can cost $200 to $400 a year - participants must also subscribe to the services of Richardson-based MobileStar Network Corp., American's partner in the venture.

A PC card and software costs $249, and there's a $50 monthly fee. But American officials say the price is worth it to business people trying to conduct business on the fly.

"It seems to be very popular in the clubs," said spokesman Dale Morris. He said 17 clubs in Europe and Asia will be added, starting in the fall.

Delta, too, wants to keep customers loyal.

The airline recently launched a wireless application that lets customers access flight information on any type of personal digital assistant.

"The functionality of wireless is what we're after," said Bill Reeves, general manage of e-commerce for Delta, which is based in Atlanta.

Mr. Perkins, the consumer advocate, said giveaway promotions amount to a way to "push the consumer into limiting his or her view of available fares."

Delta and the others say they are simply responding to demands from customers.

Meanwhile, those in a position to bag a free Palm - quickly - should be thankful: The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company that makes the devices is having trouble keeping up with demand from paying customers.

Retailers and e-tailers are "experiencing huge shortages" of Palms, said Matt Sargent of ARS Inc., a research firm.

According to Palm, orders are backlogged at least several weeks on most product lines.
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