Talking on the fly

Two European airlines will allow passengers late next year to use their own cellphones on commercial flights within western Europe, a Geneva-based technology firm said on Tuesday.

TAP Air Portugal and British carrier bmi both have agreed to introduce OnAir’s voice and text service for cellphones in separate three-month trial runs, OnAir’s chief executive George Cooper said.

The planes—which will be the first to allow passengers to make and receive calls with their own cellphones while onboard—will give OnAir the chance to assess its service before its general release, slated for 2007, he said.

“With both airlines, initially there will be a couple of airplanes—two or three airplanes—equipped with this system,” Cooper told The Associated Press from Germany.

“During that three months, we’ll all be evaluating how it’s going, what the usage is,

how we handle the crew issues and so on.”

OnAir’s system will be used by TAP on its Airbus 321 model and by bmi on its Airbus 320s, both single-aisle planes primarily used for traffic within western Europe.

Users of cellphones and other handheld wireless devices with roaming capability will be able to make and receive calls using a base station within the airplane. They will be allowed to turn their phones on after the plane reaches 3 000m when other electronic devices such as portable music players and laptops are permitted, Cooper said.

“This trial will guide us on usage patterns and some of the social issues in using mobile phones on aircraft,” said bmi chief executive Nigel Turner. “It will also help us to confirm the business case for rolling the service out across the remainder of

the fleet.”

Cellphones are banned on existing aircraft for fear that they might interfere with a plane’s navigation system as they attempt to log on to terrestrial networks.

OnAir’s mobile communications system is based within the plane, which it says ensures that cellphones and other devices operate at lower transmission power and thus avoid affecting avionics.
The company hopes to clear all regulatory hurdles for air traffic within Europe at some point next year.

OnAir—a joint venture of Airbus and Netherlands-based technology company Sita Information Networking Computing—is aiming to sell its services to other airlines, which could then use the technology in other plane models.

The technology should “add greatly to the quality of the time that our customers spend flying with us,” said TAP chief executive Fernando Pinto. “We believe that business passengers flying within Europe will very much welcome this new capability.”

Cooper said the surcharge for cellphone use would be competitive with international roaming rates, at about $2,30-$2,50 (â,¬euro1,88-â,¬2,04) per minute. A text message should cost about 50 US cents (41 â,¬ cents) to send or receive.

Airline bmi, a subsidiary of British Midland, flies primarily to destinations in Britain and western Europe and is London Heathrow Airport’s second-largest flight operator.

TAP, Portugal’s state-owned airline, flies to 43 destinations in 25 countries.

Cooper made the announcement in conjunction with the annual World Airline Entertainment Association Conference, which opened on Tuesday in Hamburg, Germany. - Sapa-AP

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