Jetphone hangs up on airline market

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Emma Kelly/LONDON

In-flight telephone service provider Jetphone will cease operations on 31 December following a lack of demand by airline passengers for in-flight telephony. Jetphone is in discussions with its airline customers on service cessation, which will leave Europe without a terrestrial flight telecommunication system (TFTS) service provider following Cable & Wireless' withdrawal from the market in 1997.

Jetphone was formed as a joint venture by telecoms companies BT and France Telecom in 1995 to offer TFTS service to airlines operating short and medium-haul flights in Europe.

The service was designed as a cheaper option than satellite-based in-flight telephony.

BT and France Telecom's decision to end their Jetphone partnership follows "weak demand" for the service, as the partners concede that they could not change passengers' telephone habits, as they prefer to use mobile telephones at the airport. In addition, Shannon, Ireland-based Jetphone was facing reduced coverage because of recent decisions by some European telecoms operators to withdraw ground station support.

Jetphone made slow progress in securing airline customers. Although Air France and SAS have 100-plus aircraft equipped, both carriers experienced disappointing call rates. The biggest setback for the company was its failure to reach agreement with British Airways for service on its entire short-haul fleet.

BA offers Jetphone service on 11 Boeing 737s and 757s, but failed to extend the service to 150 other short-haul aircraft. Jetphone says BA's contract terms were "demanding" and that it could not find a third party investor to justify the risk. French carrier Fairlines planned to install the system on 10 aircraft, but collapsed before it progressed beyond two aircraft. Recently, Jetphone secured a service-only (not telephone equipment) contract from El Al for five new Boeing 737-700s/-800s.