American Airlines and airborne telecom provider AirCell will launch a wireless broadband connectivity service on the carrier's transcontinental Boeing 767-200ERs by mid-2008.

The for-fee services will include high-speed internet surfing, VPN access and email capability for passengers with wi-fi enabled laptop computers and personal digital assistants. AirCell chief executive Jack Blumenstein says the service will cost much the same as an internet session at a coffee bar - about $10. Existing subscription agreements with major telecom providers will probably be allowed.

Aircraft modifications, which will include three antennas, a GPS antenna on top of the cabin and two antennas on the bottom, will be accomplished "overnight at an airport" under a supplemental type certificate belonging to AirCell.

The GPS antenna, which is for communications with cell towers when the aircraft is on the ground (for airline wi-fi operations), will be used in part to command the system to switch on above 10,000ft (3,050m) on departure and switch off below 10,000ft on arrival, in line with US Federal Aviation Administration rules for operation of portable electronic devices. Blumenstein says cabin crew will also be able to manually turn the system off at any time, and federal air marshals will have unspecified access for security reasons.

Billing for the services will be handled through AirCell, with customers accessing a company portal on start-up, when the system is turned on. Blumenstein says voice-over-IP will not be allowed in the cabin initially due to "concern in the USA about the social issues of voice on board an aircraft", but pilots will have access to the feature.

Blumenstein says airlines could later allow VOIP in the cabin or add hardware needed to allow passengers to use traditional cell phones on board, pending government approval and operational experience in Europe, where carriers are planning to test mobile phone services in the near future.

American says the service will be available in all classes of its 767-200s, and if the trial period is successful, could be incorporated into its entire domestic fleet. Flight's ACAS database lists 673 active in-service aircraft in American's fleet, including 15 767-200ERs. The numbers do not include regional subsidiaries.

AirCell continues to work with regulatory authorities in Canada and Mexico to extend coverage to those countries next year as well. The company last year won an exclusive broadband licence from US telecommunications regulators allowing it to operate a terrestrial air-ground network that will offer airlines lower-cost broadband connectivity compared with competing satellite-based models.

Blumenstein says there is no exclusivity in the American Airlines agreement and that the company is in "advanced" discussions with a number of airlines. "American has chosen to be an aggressive mover," he says.

Source: Flight International