Ryanair gave in-flight use of mobile phones on European airliners a significant boost on Thursday when it launched a service that will be rolled out across its fleet.

Several other European airlines, including Air France-KLM, TAP Air Portugal and BMI British Midland, have conducted trials on single aircraft, but the Irish carrier has become the first to start equipping its entire fleet, totalling more than 170 aircraft.

The service enables passengers to make and receive calls and text messages on their own phones, and to send and receive e-mails and download attachments just as they would on the ground.

The service has been launched initially on more than 20 aircraft, mainly operating out of Ryanair’s Dublin base, but Michael O’Leary, the chief executive, said the aim was to equip the whole fleet within 18 months.

The first 50 aircraft will be fitted within six months on a trial basis, but Mr O’Leary said he was confident it would then be extended to the rest of the fleet. The airline currently flies about 58m passengers a year.

The service is being provided by OnAir, a company 67 per cent owned by Sita, the aviation communications group, and 30 per cent by Airbus, the European aircraft maker. OnAir has been leading the effort to launch in-flight mobile phone services against rivals such as AeroMobile, whose service is already being used by Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, on some long-haul services.

The in-flight use of mobile phones remains controversial. Some passengers have regarded commercial aircraft as one of the last sanctuaries from the intrusion of ringtones and other people’s irritating conversations.

However, British Airways is planning to offer in-flight mobile phone services when it launches its all-business class route between London City airport and New York JFK in the autumn.

Initially, it will offer only text messaging and internet access from laptops fitted with mobile phone data cards. Voice calls may be allowed in the future, subject to customer demand and feedback. But Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, said the airline’s own customer surveys showed a clear majority were still against such a move because of the disturbance caused to other passengers.

Under the conditions agreed with the aviation safety authorities, in-flight use of mobile phones will be possible only when the aircraft is flying at cruising altitudes above 10,000 feet, and the pilot will have the ability to switch off the service.

Ryanair said passengers would typically make and receive voice calls at non-EU international roaming rates – £1.50 to £3 per minute, with text messages costing 40p-plus and e-mails £1-£2 from mobiles and other smartphones. 

Mr O’Leary said earnings from voice calls and text messages might remain relatively modest, but the use of mobile phones would eventually open up other
important revenue streams from activities such as gambling, entertainment and advertising.

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