The World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) has formed an industry committee to pave the way for the in-flight introduction of wireless cabin systems, including the latest Bluetooth wireless technology. A major part of the group's efforts will be examining the feasibility of allowing the in-flight use of passenger mobile telephones.

The group includes representatives from airline in-flight entertainment (IFE) departments, avionics and telephony equipment manufacturers and service providers. "Wireless cabin approval needs to be addressed as an industry," says Mike Kuehn, director of airline technical services at in-flight telephony company GTE Airfone. The group intends to agree which devices should be studied, conduct aircraft testing and work with the certification authorities on approvals, he says. The group must also work with the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) which prohibits the use of mobile phones onboard aircraft, says Bill Singley, director of business development at Nokia Networks.

The in-flight use of mobile telephones will require a pico cell - a small cell tower - to be installed on the aircraft, which would limit a phone to work at the lowest possible power and will instruct it to communicate only with the onboard cell rather than trying to find an antenna outside. The pico cell could be switched off at critical phases of the flight. BAE Systems uses a similar concept with its CabinCall system, which manages the volume and frequency of radio communications.

One of the few real studies to determine the effect of mobile phones on aircraft systems was undertaken by the UK Civil Aviation Authority last year. Its Safety Regulation Group conducted tests on a British Airways Boeing 737-200 and a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-200, and determined that interference levels varied with small changes in the location of the telephone; internal doors made of composite material did not block signals; and the number of passengers can affect the aircraft vulnerability to interference.

"The idea of wireless systems onboard aircraft is attractive as it will allow us to remove weight [from existing IFE/communication systems]," says Kent Craver, manager of onboard product marketing and research, Continental Airlines. But he adds that social issues concerning passengers using their mobile telephones onboard also need to be considered.

Source: Flight International