Airlines to Test Cell-Phone Service

GENEVA (AP) -- Two European airlines will allow passengers late next year to use their own cell phones on commercial flights within western Europe, a Geneva-based technology firm said Tuesday.

TAP Air Portugal and British carrier bmi both have agreed to introduce OnAir's voice and text service for cell phones in separate three-month trial runs, OnAir Chief Executive George Cooper said.

The planes - which will be the first to allow passengers to make and receive calls with their own cell phones while onboard - will give OnAir the chance to assess its service ahead of its general release in 2007 for everywhere in the world but North America, he said.

''With both airlines, initially there will be a couple of airplanes - two or three airplanes - equipped with this system,'' Cooper told The Associated Press from Germany. ''During that three months, we'll all be evaluating how it's going, what the usage is, how we handle the crew issues and so on.''

OnAir's system will be used by TAP on its Airbus 321 model and by bmi on its Airbus 320s, both single-aisle planes primarily used for flights within western Europe.

Users of mobile phones and other handheld wireless devices with roaming capability will be able to make and receive calls using a base station within the airplane. They will be allowed to turn their phones on after the plane reaches 10,000 feet, when other electronic devices such as portable music players and laptops are permitted, Cooper said.

''This trial will guide us on usage patterns and some of the social issues in using mobile phones on aircraft,'' said bmi Chief Executive Nigel Turner. ''It will also help us to confirm the business case for rolling the service out across the remainder of the fleet.''

Mobile phones are banned on existing aircraft for fear that they might interfere with a plane's navigation system as they attempt to log on to terrestrial networks.

OnAir's mobile communications system is based within the plane, which it says ensures that cell phones and other devices operate at lower transmission power and thus avoid affecting avionics. The company hopes to clear all regulatory hurdles for air traffic in Europe and the rest of the world, except the United States, at some point next year. Approval in the U.S. is expected to take longer, Cooper said.

The technology should ''add greatly to the quality of the time that our customers spend flying with us,'' said TAP Chief Executive Fernando Pinto. ''We believe that business passengers flying within Europe will very much welcome this new capability.''

OnAir - a joint venture of Airbus and Netherlands-based technology company SITA Information Networking Computing - is aiming to sell its services to other airlines, which could then use the technology in other plane models.

But the regulatory process in the United States will probably take longer, pushing back OnAir's potential release date in North America, Cooper said.

''The FAA and the FCC take a different approach from Europe and the rest of the world,'' he explained. ''In the short-term, we are not likely to be a direct player in the U.S. domestic market.''

Cooper said the surcharge for mobile phone use will be competitive with international roaming rates, at about $2.30-$2.50 per minute. A text message should cost about 50 cents to send or receive.

Airline bmi, a subsidiary of British Midland PLC, flies primarily to destinations in Britain and western Europe and is London Heathrow Airport's second-largest flight operator.

TAP, Portugal's state-owned airline, flies to 43 destinations in 25 countries.

Cooper made the announcement in conjunction with the annual World Airline Entertainment Association Conference, which opened Tuesday in Hamburg, Germany.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press

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