So Ryanair has formally launched its onboard mobile phone service. In the in-flight mobile connectivity world this is a big deal. Ryanair is not the first, nor does it yet have the largest number of aircraft equipped with a service allowing passengers to use their mobile phones onboard - Air France was the first commercial airline to trial OnAir's service at the end of 2007 and Emirates has been flying for nearly a year with the Aeromobile voice and text service and already has more than 30 aircraft equipped.
But for OnAir this is a red letter day. While it has plenty of customers in the books, Wataniya and three single aircraft trials are all that have flown in the commercial airline space to date. Ryanair's eagerness to start with 20 aircraft - growing to nearly 50 in the next six months -guarantees some critical mass. With Royal Jordanian, AirAsia, Oman Air and AirBlue among those to follow this year it hopes to have up to 100 aircraft flying by year end. Together with Aeromobile's further roll-outs and with Emirates recently trumpeting its 100,000th call, this year should finally be one of momentum to what has thus far been an arduous path. In short, we should at last get some real idea if and how people will use phones onboard.
In principle I had my chance to try this out for myself, having taken two OnAir-equipped Ryanair flights in the space of 24hrs. I say in principle, as my Blackberry powered by Vodaphone in the UK could not get a signal other than emergency calls (they were very good about it, but did not seem to think me ringing to say I was calling from the sky was an ACTUAL emergency). So here in lies another of the difficulties for an airline marketing these services in these early stages of roll-out. Not only does an airline have to manage passenger expectations of whether they will be on one of the flights operated by an aircraft where you can use your phone, but it also depends on who your phone's mobile operator. OnAir has roaming agreements in place with two key players in Ireland - alongside 50 operators across Ireland and is now working to fill in the gaps, notably with key Irish operators 3 and Meteor.
But if Ryanair is cautious about over-promising on the service, it is not holding back should you find yourself on a phone-equipped aircraft. Adverts promoting the service adorn the overhead bins, while there are some overhead lights featuring a red Please Turn Off/ and a green Phone Use Permitted sign in the aisle. Cabin crew also announce when the service is about to become available - it is only switched outside take-off and landing phases.
On my flights I found it quite entertaining watching the double-takes around me as people suddenly realised the crew were saying you COULD use your phone. Now the many regulatory hurdles have been overcome, this is one of the major challenges to get the message across that on some flights, mobile phones and blackberrys can be used.
"It will take time, not like the [instant move to] non-smoking," acknowledges OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains. "People have been used to not using their phones onboard."
By the way, thank to Lars at Inmarsat for the Ryanair pictures. For more on phones, onboard connectivity and all things in-flight entertainment, do check out if you have not already the excellent Runway Girl blog