In-flight mobile communications specialist OnAir believes up to 100 aircraft could be flying with its phone service by year-end, as Ryanair starts building coverage to support its own multi-aircraft launch.
Ryanair has gone live with the mobile service on board 20 aircraft, predominantly operating from Dublin. The service is already available to O2 and Vodaphone customers in Ireland, together with 50 other mobile phone operators across Europe. OnAir is also talking to two key Irish mobile operators 3 and Meteor to expand the availability of the service.
"We have to build the coverage," says OnAir chief executive Benoit Debains. "We never thought we would start from day one with 100%. We have not reached the top of the agenda [for some mobile operators yet], but we will soon. It is in their interests."
While Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary says the carrier is being careful not to over-promise, and stresses that the service is currently only available on a small number of its fleet, the service is heavily promoted on those equipped aircraft.
Overhead cabin bins throughout the aircraft feature adverts, cabin announcements are made when the service is available, and overhead red or green lights in the aisle display whether calls can be made.
The OnAir system enables six simultaneous voice calls to be made in-flight - this capability will be increased to 12 by year-end - alongside text and e-mails, transmitted over Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband network. Call rates are set by individual mobile operators and are in line with international roaming rates, rather than intra-EU call rates, at typically €2-3 per minute for voice calls.
"There are very substantial [set-up] costs, so it is reflected in the initial charges being somewhat high. I'm sure we will have some bleating about the price," says O'Leary. "It's your choice if you want to use it. I don't think people will use it for rubbish calls. As it grows, the cost and charges will inevitably fall."
One of the tasks is to alert people, who have long been told mobile phone use is prohibited, that they can use their phones on these flights. "It will take time, not like the [instant move to] non-smoking," says Debains. "People have been used to not using their phones on board."
OnAir hopes to see up to 100 aircraft in service by year-end. Air France was the first airline to carry out a trial of the text and messaging service, on a single Airbus, in December 2007, later expanding the trial to include voice-call capability. BMI and TAP Portugal are also carrying out single-aircraft trials, while Kuwaiti start-up Wataniya Airways launched with OnAir on board earlier this year.
"[Ryanair] is the first time we have put a full fleet together in one go," says Debains. The carrier will ramp up to 50 aircraft during the six-month trial and outfit its 170-strong fleet over the next two years. Ryanair also marks the first OnAir installation on Boeing aircraft.
Airbus-equipped aircraft are in production for AirAsia which should launch the service in the third quarter. British Airways will deploy it on its all-business transatlantic flights from London City Airport this September, while Brazil's TAM, Oman Air and Pakistan's Airblue will all fly before year-end.
"By the end of the year, I think there will be between 90 and 100 aircraft flying," says Debains.