UK airlines could let passengers use their mobile phones to make calls and send text messages by 2008, under proposals from Ofcom.
The watchdog has set out guidelines to allow airlines to offer mobile services on UK-registered aircraft, if they wish to do so.
The proposed system includes an on-board base station which connects to a passenger's mobile handset.
Under the guidelines, both the base station and passenger phones must be switched off during take-off and landing to eliminate interference with other terrestrial mobile networks.
Once the aircraft reaches a height of 3,000 metres the mobile phone system can be switched on by the cabin crew.
Mobile users can then use the aircraft's network service to make and receive calls, which will be routed via a satellite link to the network on the ground with calls billed through the passengers' normal service providers.
2G phones will be able to use the system for data, voice and text services and if the service is successful it could be extended to 3G and other standards in the future.
The earliest the mobile services could be available from UK-registered airlines is 2008, subject to approval by the aviation authorities.
The Ofcom proposals have been developed jointly with other EU countries and are intended to cover all European airspace but it is up to the individual airlines to decide whether they want to introduce such mobile services with the installation of mobile systems on planes only allowed once it has been approved by the relevant UK and European aviation authorities.
The European air-safety body gave the green light for airborne GSM equipment to be fitted by airlines to give passengers in-flight mobile phone use this year.
The launch of in-flight mobile services by several airlines had been delayed by the awarding of the safety certificate by the European Aviation Safety Authority taking longer than expected.