Mobile Phones on Planes in 2007?

OnAir develops technology for affordable in-flight cellular calls to begin trials next year. Also on tap: in-flight Internet service

UK airline BMI will begin trials of satellite-based technology next year that will allow passengers to make in-flight mobile calls and send text messages on board its aircraft.

The technology has been developed by OnAir, the joint venture between Airbus and airline industry IT body Sita, and will also be used in trials early in 2007 with Air France and Portugal's TAP.

OnAir has just signed a deal with Monaco Telecom to provide the ground network infrastructure that will handle all GSM and GPRS calls made from OnAir's in-flight mobile services.

The on-board equipment incorporates technology from Tenzing, the company that pioneered in-flight email, while Inmarsat will be providing the satellite communications.

A pico cell located on board the Airbus aircraft using the technology will pick up mobile phone signals via a "leaky cable" antenna running along the length of the plane. The signal is then converted, sent to a satellite and then routed to the ground network.

The service is expected to cost between $2.30 and $2.50 for making in-flight calls, although George Cooper, CEO of OnAir, told he expects this to come down by about 10 per cent per year as mobile roaming rates fall - OnAir is currently in the process of negotiating roaming agreements with the main mobile operators.

Internet services are also expected to be available to airline passengers as part of the OnAir offering later in 2007. Coverage will initially only be available in Europe, followed by the Middle East and Asia. The US is not being targeted because the main mobile standard there is CDMA and not GSM.

BMI will test the business case, usage patterns and social issues around using mobile phones on aircraft on one of its A320 Airbus planes flying out of London Heathrow Airport on various short-haul routes across Europe.

OnAir research, due to be published later this year, into mobile usage on planes will show that 40 per cent of passengers in business and first class on short-haul journeys in Europe and Asia have GPRS BlackBerry-style devices and that 97 per cent of them would use it in-flight if they could.

Cooper acknowledged that airlines could come across opposition from some passengers who would not necessarily welcome a loud-mouthed businessman shouting into his mobile phone for the duration of a flight.

The technology, however, will allow flight crew to switch off the voice element of the service, for example, on a night flight and guidelines will be developed advising passengers to do things such as switch their ringtone to silent.