UK regional operator Flybe is planning to offer in-flight mobile communication as a fringe benefit from a satcom installation intended to provide live weather data.

The system also has the potential to provide volcanic ash warnings through a separate initiative which Flybe is conducting with Cambridge University.

Flybe is funding the satcom avionics fit by partnering with US weather data specialist AirDat, which procures the equipment that will be installed on Flybe's fleet.

Flybe UK managing director Andrew Strong, speaking at an Embraer event in Palma de Mallorca, said the installation would focus initially on carrier's new Embraer 175s and its 195s, because of the jets' longer sector advantage.

"It's cheaper to acquire the hardware and install it on an airline than use weather balloons," said Strong. Flybe in return gains operational control communications capabilities - for which the expenditure would otherwise be prohibitive - as well as enough satcom bandwidth to offer limited email and text air-ground communication to passengers.

Strong said the carrier has "to work out" whether this service will be offered free or whether it could generate revenue.

Flybe has also linked with Cambridge University which is developing a particulate matter sensor, that could provide volcanic ash information.

"Couple satcom with the detector and you can start providing some very interesting data," he said.

Strong said the idea is in the "test-bed phase" and an aviation proof-of-concept could be ready within nine months. The system features a detector about the size of a coin, mounted on the airframe, and differs from EasyJet's ash-detection development.

"We believe the market is vast and may not be limited to E-Jets," said Strong. Flybe expects to fit the satcom equipment from early next year, with 20 aircraft fitted by April 2012.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news