Air France starts six-month cellphone trial with OnAir

Aviation International News » February 2008
February 8, 2008, 5:43 AM

Air France has started a six-month trial aboard an Airbus A318 with communications provider OnAir to provide cellphone services to passengers flying in Europe. For now, passengers can use their mobile phones to send and receive text messages,
e-mail and photos. After three months Air France intends to expand the service to allow passengers to make and receive phone calls as well.

The FCC last year decided to scrap a plan to allow cellphone use by U.S. passengers after takeoff, making it unlikely that a similar service will be offered in North America anytime soon. American Airlines last month installed the first AirCell Broadband receiver aboard a Boeing 767-200 in preparation for flight trials with passengers later this year. This service will allow passengers to use their laptop computers and Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones to send text and e-mail messages. American plans to install the equipment in 15 airplanes this year as part of a technology evaluation. Virgin America also plans to install the AirCell hardware in its fleet of Airbus A319s and A320s this year. Cost to connect will be about $10 per flight.

The OnAir service will be charged to the individual’s mobile-device account at regular international mobile calling rates.

When the second phase of the trial begins, passengers will be able to make and receive phone calls as they would on the ground, but Air France says the service will be regulated “to maintain passengers’ comfort and well-being.” Many air travelers say they worry that onboard cellphone use will make airline flying unbearable if passengers in close proximity carry on long conversations aloft.

The fears could be overblown, however. Train passengers are able to talk on their cellphones and send e-mail or Web surf, and they usually do so without unduly imposing on fellow travelers. Regardless of how the airplane- and train-going public views airborne cellphone use, however, business jet passengers are eager to use their own cellphones to make calls. Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology likely will make such calling capability a reality sooner rather than later despite the FCC’s stance on airborne cellphone use. VoIP technology uses Wi-Fi Internet connections and does not interfere with cellphone signals on the ground.

JetBlue, meanwhile, will soon roll out free in-flight Yahoo instant messaging and e-mail services to passengers, allowing them to send and receive data once the airplane reaches 10,000 feet.

Owners of Wi-Fi-capable BlackBerry smartphones will be able to take advantage of the service as well. Bandwidth for these services is provided by LiveTV, a wholly owned subsidiary of the carrier that provides the entire JetBlue fleet with DirecTV and XM radio channels, and which recently acquired a 1-MHz slice of ground-to-air spectrum that it’s deploying using 100 existing cell towers around the U.S.

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