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The widespread use of mobile telephones on passenger aircraft could become a reality next year, after Ryanair, the European low-cost carrier, announced plans to equip its fleet with an onboard mobile service.
“If you want a quiet flight, use another airline,” said Michael O’Leary, chief executive.
The airline announced a deal with OnAir to equip its fleet of Boeing 737-800s over the next two years, with the first calls being made in July next year subject to regulatory approval.
He said that Ryanair planned to promote in-flight mobile usage “very aggressively”. He said he expected many passengers to use mobile phones for text messaging rather than for voice calls, and he dismissed concerns about other passengers being disturbed by loud mobile calls or the need for “quiet zones” on board aircraft.
“Ryanair is noisy, full and we are always trying to sell you something,” he said.
Air France plans to launch the first trial on a single aircraft in February and further trials will be made by BMI British Midland and TAP Air Portugal in the second quarter of next year. A rival system developed by AeroMobile is to be given a three-month trial by Qantas on a Boeing 767 on domestic routes in Australia early next year.
Fliers worried about a lack of sleep on long-haul flights can rest easy – at least for part of the time. Pilots can control the service and are likely to switch to “silent” mode during night flights – blocking calls but allowing SMS messages or e-mails.
The systems are being launched as Boeing prepares to abandon Connexion, its own loss-making in-flight service, which provides internet and e-mails but not mobile telephony.
In-flight phone services using handsets fixed in the cabin have failed to take off, with high prices a deterrent. Verizon Communications said in June it would cancel its service, which cost $3.99 to connect and $4.99 per minute for a fixed-line call.
Mobile phone operators will charge passengers using Mobile OnAir at rates in line with current international roaming charges. George Cooper, chief executive of OnAir, said the aircraft would be “like a little country in the sky”.
Mr Cooper said short-haul flights were the “natural environment” for mobile phone use with no problem for changing time zones or passengers seeking to sleep. “We don’t think long-haul is the key market.”
Ryanair will receive commission payments based on the level of phone usage and said it planned to use handsets as a platform for in-flight gambling.
Mr O’Leary forecast that “every airline would offer mobile phone use in relatively short order”. However, some carriers were more cautious.
An easyJet spokesman said: “We are not looking at it. We have no plans.” British Airways also said it had no immediate plans to introduce such a service.
“It is perhaps OK on a one hour flight to Paris, but it is a different issue when people are trying to sleep,” a spokesman said.
Other in-flight communications systems have already met customer resistance.
Boeing this month announced it was taking a write-down of more than US$300m to close its Connexion by Boeing “internet in the sky” service because it has failed to attract sufficient airline customers.