Virgin Australia has capability to use mobile phones in-flight

VH-YFC with hump detail.JPGThe antenna for the SAT-2200 avionics suite connects to AeroMobile’s connectivity service, which can support in-flight mobile phone usage. The antenna is encased under a radome near the tail.

Virgin Australia’s newest Boeing 737-800s have been fitted with AeroMobile’s connectivity solution that supports in-flight voice calls, SMS, and GPRS (3G) data usage.

Initially Virgin Australia is using the connection not for passenger use but to support crew communications associated with the Rockwell Collins SAT-2200 avionics suite that uses AeroMobile partner Inmarsat’s 432kbps SwiftBroadband satellite service over a L band high-gain antenna. The same platform permits Virgin Australia to provide in-flight connectivity for passengers if it chooses to do so, according to sources familiar with the matter. Virgin Australia did not respond to requests for comment.

Although connectivity is ubiquitous in the American market for its ancillary revenue opportunities, airlines around Asia see it as a loyalty draw and necessary offering. Airlines in America prohibit mobile phone use, unlike elsewhere. Australian airlines received clearance last July to let passengers use mobile phones in-flight.

Questions about Virgin Australia’s in-flight connectivity plans were raised after its new aircraft were spotted with unusual radomes.

Virgin Australia chief executive John Borghetti said last February about the prospect of offering in-flight wifi (not mobile phone use): “the moment that [connectivity] capability is available you will see us entering this space.”

Regionally, Virgin’s trans-Tasman partner Air New Zealand has deployed OnAir’s L band mobile phone and data solution on its newest Airbus A320 aircraft that fly domestically. Qantas conducted a year-long trial in 2007 with AeroMobile. Qantas A380s are equipped with OnAir’s connectivity solution but this not yet been fully implemented for passenger use.

V Australia has AeroMobile connectivity on its 777-300ER fleet but has also not switched it on for passenger use. The carrier is understood to have been nearing a launch earlier this year but delayed it, possibly in connection with Boeing finding Honeywell Phase 3 Display Units were susceptible to “blanking” during electro magnetic interference (EMI) certification of in-flight wifi, as colleague Mary Kirby reported.

Although the incident occurred while testing wifi, Boeing is undertaking a precautionary review to ensure mobile phones do not cause the same effect.

Virgin Australia was announced last November as the launch customer for the SAT-2200 with plans to deploy the avionics suite on its new fleet of 737-800s, which includes 50 firm orders, 25 options, and a further 30 purchase rights.

Rockwell Collins says the SAT-2200 integrates traditionally separate avionics and cabin functionality into a single unit that provides classic aero services and broadband services. It says the system “is designed to maintain communications without pilot intervention during all flight phases while also connecting passengers to broadband services”. Rockwell Collins adds the system complies with the latest ARINC 781 industry standard for Inmarsat SATCOM capability for classic aeronautical, Swift64 and SwiftBroadband operation.

Virgin is also outfitting its new 737-800s with Rockwell Collins’ ‘MultiScan’ threat detection system, TTR-2100 traffic avoidance system, and GLU-925 multi-mode receiver.


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