ITALIAN REGIONAL carrier Meridiana is to fit its fleet of British Aerospace BAe 146-200s with passenger satellite-telephones.

The move is the first satellite communication (satcom) installation on the 146 and the first significant passenger-satcom made available by a regional carrier, according to In-Flight Entertainment, the Flight International newsletter.

The decision is another blow to the credibility of the rival terrestrial flight-telephone system (TFTS) following Swissair's decision to use satcom rather than the TFTS for its narrowbody fleet. The only firm airline commitment to the TFTS has come from SAS, which is now equipping its fleet.

Meridiana commercial director Steve Forte says that, like Swissair, he was unhappy with TFTS coverage, which only becomes active at around 3,000-4,000ft (1,000-1,200m) above the ground and is not normally available on the ground. Meridiana's relatively short stage-lengths make the issue even more clear-cut, because, on many services, the aircraft would barely enter TFTS-coverage.

Meridiana's plans are even more striking because the telephones are being fitted throughout the aircraft - not just in business class. Furthermore, the carrier is charging passengers exactly the same call-rate that is imposed on it by satellite-owner Inmarsat - around $9 - with no profit margin. "I don't think we could charge any more, the idea is simply to provide a better service," says Forte.

The deal also marks important steps forward for the two main suppliers involved. Meridiana has selected Rockwell-Collins airborne satcom equipment, marking Collins' entry into the airline narrowbody market, and it has ignored the traditional communications service-providers - SITA and Skyphone - in favour of Italy's domestic telephone company Telecom Italia.

The other vendors in the arrangement are Canadian Marconi, providing its CMA-2102 top-mounted antenna; and GTE Airfone, with its GenStar on-board telephone system.

Source: Flight International