Mobile phone use in flight is approaching take-off, with several service providers set to go live in 2007

The wait is nearly over. After several years of anticipation, and pending regulatory approvals, it looks like 2007 will be the year that mobile phones appear legally in the aircraft cabin.

Europe continues to be at the forefront of developments in the field. With its initial target of European short-haul routes, Geneva-based service provider OnAir has been working hard to get approval from European authorities and it looks like its efforts are paying off. "We are not expecting any impediment to our intentions for 2007," says OnAir chief executive George Cooper.

A European telecommunication authority (CEPT) has given its backing to a regulatory framework of mutual recognition - one of the requirements before mobile phones can be used in flight. Under this scheme, the mobile phone service would be authorised in the country of registration of the aircraft, and this would then apply in reciprocal countries within the geographic framework. "This is a very important development and brings us a step closer to the introduction of our services," says Cooper.

Air France will be the first carrier to introduce the service. It is currently being installed on a new Airbus A318 for the airline, which is expected to enter into service in March and conduct a six-month trial on services within Europe and to North Africa.

Two other European carriers - bmi and TAP - are also planning to test the service in 2007, but the really big deal for OnAir has been the commitment by Ryanair to install the system on its entire fleet. This will cover around 200 aircraft over the next couple of years and will be the first deployment on Boeing aircraft as the three trials will all be held on Airbus narrowbodies.

Ryanair plans to begin offering the service on a number of aircraft operating out of London Stansted airport. The aim is to equip 50 aircraft during the second half of 2007.

Rival provider AeroMobile is taking a different approach, with initial operation on long-haul routes operated by an Emirates Boeing 777 from January.

phone services

Regulatory approval

AeroMobile has already gained regulatory approval from 20 individual countries, with the emphasis on routes flown by its launch customer. David Coiley, director of marketing and strategic relationships at AeroMobile, says: "The first route will be to Asia. This has the advantage of being mainly over sea and over large countries, which makes regulatory approval easier."

Emirates is taking a different approach to the European carriers, opting to aim for fleet-wide installation as quickly as possible. "In a couple of years our whole fleet will be equipped. We want a rapid roll-out," says Patrick Brannelly, vice-president for passenger communications and visual services at Emirates. "We have been looking at this for years and there is strong evidence passengers want to be able to use their own mobile phones. I believe we will see devices converging over the next few years - passengers will be sending text messages via their watches and iPods."

Elsewhere, Qantas is to test the AeroMobile service for a three-month period from early 2007 on board a Boeing 767 operating on domestic routes. "This is the first step towards building a product that will support our customers' business and communication needs into the future," says Lesley Grant, Qantas group general manager of customer product.

She adds that Qantas will use the trial to assess the technology and develop a policy governing the use of mobile phones during flight, adding: "It is a terrific opportunity for us to work with our customers to shape the final product. Qantas will be one of the first airlines in the world to offer this service."

According to The Airline IT Trends Survey 2006, produced by Airline Business and SITA, 42% of carriers who responded plan to offer mobile phone connectivity in flight within three years.

Different carriers have different views on whether offering the facility to make calls and send text messages is a service differentiator or a revenue generator. Passengers will pay the same rate as overseas roaming charges, with some revenue coming back to the carrier to defray expense of installation.

But Ryanair is clear how it sees the service making money. It has entered into partnership with online gaming company to enable passengers to play bingo and "instant win" games on their mobile phone in flight.

Chief executive Michael O'Leary has said that he could see a time when passengers travel for free on aircraft, with carriers making their money from the ancillary revenues generated by initiatives such as online gambling. He says he expects Ryanair's ancillary revenues to grow to more than 20% of total revenues over the next five years.

The question of mobile phone use etiquette may not be the thorny problem that has been anticipated. "We believe the discussion in the public has been somewhat overstated," says Coiley. In fact, while there is the capacity for every passenger on a flight to send SMS messages at once, just five voice calls can be made at a time using the AeroMobile system.

"We do not anticipate this will be a problem," says Brannelly. "There is usually 75-80dB of ambient noise in an aircraft cabin anyway, and most passengers are wearing headsets. I believe ring tones will be the most irritating," he adds.

The OnAir system will enable up to 14 calls to be made at once. "It is pretty unlikely that there will be 14 simultaneous calls in a short-haul single-aisle aircraft," believes Cooper. There is effectively no limit on the number of text messages that can be sent.

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh says there has been some interest from customers in being able to use a texting service. "This is likely to be the way forward," he says, adding that there has been "very little interest" from customers in mobile phone use. "It could be interesting to introduce text service about 18 months from now," he says. "We are doing research with a couple of suppliers, but even with text we don't see any huge demand at this stage."

Air France will be seeking feedback from passengers on its trial flights. Initially the OnAir system will be tested for three months. "All Air France passengers will be kept well informed of the service by leaflets handed out before boarding and announcements on board. During this period passenger opinions and feedback will be taken into account through questionnaires given out during the flight and the results of this will determine whether or not the service will eventually be rolled out across the fleet," says Erik Fouquart, head of commercial, Air France, UK and Ireland.

Europe is not the only region developing the technology. AirCell in the USA is developing a system that will turn the aircraft into "a flying hot spot", according to AirCell chief executive Jack Blumenstein. "There is a faster pace of cell phone usage in Europe," he says, "and the model in the USA is substantially different."

On board hotspots

The AirCell broadband system will offer voice calls in its second stage. Initially the service will include a WiFi hotspot that allows passengers to surf the internet and use e-mail via their own laptops and personal digital assistants. As this is a ground-based system rather than the satellite-based systems developed in Europe, "the cost to the passenger is much lower", says Blumenstein.

"We are in detailed planning with a handful of US airlines and expect to announce customers by the end of the first quarter 2007," says Blumenstein. He does not envisage having a launch airline as such. "We see a running start by a number of airlines that desire to reach critical mass very quickly."

As the system is ground-based it will initially cover the continental USA, but he expects that service throughout Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean will be introduced "at or shortly after" service launch in the USA.

Although the AirCell system would only operate over land, US majors that fly domestically and internationally would want to extend the service. Blumenstein foresees collaboration between providers in the future. "I have told George Cooper [of OnAir] that we will meet over the ocean," he jokes.

Cooper does not see his system restricted to western Europe. He says he is talking to airlines in the Middle East, and has seen great interest from "an eastern European carrier". He expects huge interest from short-haul single-aisle operators, but feels the business case on long-haul aircraft is a lot less compulsive. "It is important to develop what we've already promised first and prove to shareholders and investors what we can do. Industry wants to see that this is something worth doing."

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Rising from the ashes of Connexion by Boeing

The 11 carriers offering Connexion by Boeing's (CBB) internet access on board their aircraft were hit with the news in August 2006 that the service was being withdrawn following a "detailed business and market analysis" by the supplier.

But Panasonic Avionics looks set to come to their rescue with the announcement expected soon that it is linking up with a satellite partner and a WiFi "hot spot" partner to replace the CBB service.

CBB went live in 2003 with Lufthansa as launch customer but, as Boeing head Jim McNerney said in a statement: "Regrettably, the market for this service has not materialised as had been expected."

There will be a gap of a few months in service between Connexion's switch off at the end of 2006 and Panasonic starting up. "We are working with customer airlines to use existing CBB equipment," says David Bruner, Panasonic Avionics strategic marketing director. "We give advice to the airlines and they work with Boeing. It is being done on an airline-by-airline and fleet-type by fleet-type basis."

He adds that there will be several carriers in the launch group, which is due to be revealed at the end of January. "We wanted commitments on 500 aircraft to go ahead," he says, "and have validated that the demand in the marketplace is much greater than that." He says there are now more non-CBB carriers than existing CBB carriers committed to sign up for the service. "It will be a truly global service, and there will be US carriers included," he adds.

Existing carriers were disappointed at losing CBB and have been sceptical about how a replacement service would succeed. Hermine Wachtmeister, manager IFE and communications at SAS believes carriers will be wary about making such a sizeable investment again. "If a company like Boeing couldn't make it work, why should anyone else?"

According to Bruner, Panasonic is in a position to succeed where CBB failed because it has two partners sharing the investment and providing expertise in their field - something that CBB had to do alone and from scratch. "They can do things we have no experience in," he says. "There were flaws in Boeing's business plan and market conditions for CBB were not good. We are confident of success." 

Source: Airline Business