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In-flight internet access has been available for some 18 months now and, despite the fears of fairytale character Henny Penny, the sky has not fallen in. Connexion by Boeing, offering passengers high-speed in-flight internet access, entered service with Lufthansa in May 2004 and this summer added Austrian Airlines and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad to its customer list.

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Verizon Airfone is also developing a system of broadband connectivity that will offer passengers wi-fi (wireless fidelity) high-speed access to the internet on flights over North America and Mexico. According to Michael Kuehn, vice-president of marketing and sales at Verizon Airfone, entry into service is expected in the first half of 2007. No launch customer has yet been named.

The next challenge is to allow passengers to make calls and send SMS messages through their own mobile phone or personal data assistant (PDA) and, despite some delays in achieving the necessary regulatory approvals, this too is no fairy tale. Connexion plans to add mobile phone and SMS messaging services to its offering late next year, and Kuehn says the Airfone system can also be developed to interface with mobile phones and PDAs.

AeroMobile, a joint venture between Arinc and Telenor Satellite Services, and OnAir, the Airbus, SITA and Tenzing link-up, both have launch customers in place for first trials of their on-board mobile phone service and plan to start in 2006. It is believed Emirates will become the first commercial carrier to offer passengers the AeroMobile service. The United Arab Emirates has already given initial regulatory approval “for proving purposes” for mobile phone usage, and UAE-registered aircraft will be able to fly globally on that authority.

Maurice Flanagan, vice-chairman of Emirates, confirms the carrier is examining on-board mobile phone use, but he has reservations about too many incoming calls disturbing passengers and whether a rash of calls could disrupt the aircraft’s avionics systems. “My question is, can you bar receiving calls while admitting the sending of calls? Nobody has actually explained to us if that is possible.”

European focus

OnAir is focusing its efforts on the European market, where it says the regulatory process is most advanced. Chief executive George Cooper believes authorities in the Gulf region and Asia-Pacific are monitoring developments in Europe and are likely to follow suit once approval is granted. Kuehn agrees, saying: “Europe is being looked upon as a test case as just one system [GSM] operates there. We are watching closely.”

TAP Portugal and the UK’s bmi have announced their intention to trial the use of mobile phones in flight towards the end of 2006, by which time OnAir is confident its equipment will be fully certified, with the necessary approvals in place.

“This trial will help us confirm the business case for rolling out the service,” says bmi chief executive Nigel Turner. “Initially we would hope to install the equipment in our short- to medium-haul Airbus A320s.” He points out the need to iron out some of the social issues in using mobile phones in flight, a concern echoed by other carriers as well as manufacturers.

SAS has offered the Connexion by Boeing system on all its long-haul flights since March 2005 and is pleased with customer take-up so far. According to Hermine Wachtmeister, manager of in-flight communication and media at SAS, there were some initial technical difficulties that led to the service being relaunched by the carrier in September, but generally passengers are very positive.

One criticism is that the registration process is too complicated and Connexion is modifying it to make it more straightforward. Wachtmeister is confident the service will be extended to include the use of mobile phones and PDAs, but she too stresses the need for a code of etiquette to be established during the quiet hours of a flight.

At the moment, Singapore Airlines is the only carrier offering live TV as part of its Connexion service, but the manufacturer says the service will be rolled out across all airline partners early in 2006. From February, SAS will offer four channels of live television through laptops using the Connexion service, and from mid-2006 Etihad will offer live television and internet access through its seat-back entertainment system.

According to a Burke Research study of airline passengers commissioned by Connexion, the vast majority (89%) find the greatest benefit of in-flight connectivity to be the ability to catch up on work email during travel, while for about half the respondents, the most eagerly awaited enhancement is the potential to make and receive phone calls and SMS messages and e-mail via mobile phone. The same number said the availability of high-speed internet access would definitely influence their choice of airline.

“We have taken the decision not to go head-to-head with Connexion at the moment on broadband, but we may do in future if the market dictates,” says Graham Lake, AeroMobile chief executive.

Service differentiation rather than revenue generation seems to be the motivation for carriers installing internet access for the time being. Ryanair for instance, is looking at systems that could support either a passenger’s own PDA or a handheld unit that the cabin crew would distribute. Chief executive Michael O’Leary says: “You don’t need all the wiring around the aircraft and you can run glorified BlackBerrys. There is a slight notion of safety during the flight, but there is no reason why that cannot be resolved.”

Ultimately, however much revenue in-flight connectivity does or does not generate, it will be something that carriers cannot afford to be without. As the recent Airline Business/SITA Airline IT Trends survey showed, there is a good number of early adopters for these services, although many are still sitting on the fence .

One of the innovators, SAS, from a region traditionally considered as “techno-savvy”, describes the technology as exactly what it wanted. It puts the carrier’s passengers “in the front line of hi-tech products”, according to Wachtmeister. It seems it is not alone in that desire. ■

JACKIE THOMPSON/LONDON