OnAir, the inflight mobile phone company, is forecasting that the use of mobile phones on short-haul commercial flights in Europe will become a reality by the second half of next year, despite the cautious response of many airlines.
The company, a joint venture between Airbus, the European aircraft maker, and Sita, the aviation communications group that holds a majority stake, has selected Siemens of Germany to provide the lightweight GSM cell, that will make possible the inflight use. GSM is the world's largest mobile communications standard.
The system is designed to ensure that air passengers can use a mobile phone without interfering with aircraft systems or ground mobile networks.
A rival system is also being developed by Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications equipment maker, which claims that existing air crew will be able to handle it “with a minimum of extra workload” enabling passengers to make and receive calls, when the aircraft has reached cruising altitude.
Ericsson says its system, which should be available for installation late this year, could offer up to 60 simultaneous calls.
Airlines remain to be convinced, however, amid concerns that the inflight use of mobile phones could annoy as many passengers as they please.
British Airways on Tuesday said it had begun to research passenger attitudes towards the inflight use of mobile phones. The work was still at an early stage, but initial findings suggested that passengers would prefer systems to be limited to text messaging rather than allowing voice calls.
OnAir said its system would give aircraft crew access to a control panel for switching the system to “selected service mode” such as text-only in order to ensure that “quiet” times were respected in the cabin.
However, according to a report from Booz Allen Hamilton, the management and technology consultancy, inflight mobile phone services will provide “substantial revenue potential” for both mobile network providers and airlines.
“We expect the total volume of fees for mobile telephony during flights to reach €2bn ($2.4bn) in Europe alone by 2010,” said Uwe Lambrette of Booz Allen Hamilton.
The report forecasts that the market will be well under development by 2008 with expected annual growth rates of 30 to 60 per cent. “By 2010 air travel with full mobile accessibility except for take-off and landing will be standard.”