Page last updated at 04:48 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

Mobile phones take to the skies

By Colette Hume
BBC News

Ryanair chief executive Michael O Leary
Michael O'Leary expects rapid demand for inflight mobile services

Picture the scene - you're on the plane on your way to a dream holiday destination. Take-off was smooth and the drinks trolley is on its way down the aisle.

The mood is complete - then a mobile phone rings.

For some that sound spells heaven, for others hell, but from now on it's a reality for thousands of Ryanair passengers.

The budget airline has become the first European carrier to offer the in-flight service. Passengers can now call, text and email from 10,000ft (3,048m) and above.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary says the service has been brought in as a result of passenger demand.

"This service will allow passengers to keep in touch with the office, family or friends.

It's great if you need to contact a loved one, but other than that it's just one of those inconveniences
Roseleen Carey, air passenger

"We expect customer demand for this service to grow rapidly. People have been writing to me for years saying they want to be able to use their mobiles on our planes. From today we can tell them they can."

The service, being provided through Swiss in-flight communications company OnAir, is currently limited to customers of O2 and Vodafone, with voice call costs of between £1.50 and £3 a minute.

Among the passengers travelling from London's Gatwick airport to Dublin was Betty McGee. She was anxiously staring at the phone - and with a good reason.

"My daughter is in hospital in Surrey," she explained. "She's about to give birth to my second grandchild - I've been texting her husband for news."

Roseleen Carey travelling home to Dublin agreed that in an emergency, being able to use the phone on board was useful.

"It's great if you need to contact a loved one," she said, "but other than that it's just one of those inconveniences."

Onboard antenna

So how does it work? Once the plane reaches 10,000ft the captain switches on an antenna onboard the plane.

Phones then connect to that antenna and a mini GSM network that sends the calls and data via an Immarsat SwiftBroadband satellite link back down to earth.

Service provider OnAir's ground infrastructure routes the calls and data to mobile and fixed network operators.

The local GSM cell network inside the aircraft is the key to using the phone during flight. OnAir says mobiles had been banned from flights because they connected, or attempted to connect, to terrestrial networks.

In doing that they started to radiate at their maximum power and above accepted levels in an aeronautical environment.

The company says the cell network created inside the aircraft means mobiles will connect instead at minimal power levels, well within safety limits.

Limited numbers

It is simple to use and the quality of the line is good. If there's a problem it's making yourself heard over the noise of the plane's engines and the frequent announcement from the cockpit and the cabin crew.

Of course there is one other issue - air rage. Will passengers having noisy phone conversations, perhaps during a night flight, result in frayed tempers or perhaps worse? Only time will tell.

The number of passengers who can use the service to make calls is currently set at just six - but unlimited numbers can text.

Phone permitted sign
Passengers are able to use their mobiles above 10,000 feet

Mr O'Leary says he's in talks with other phone providers and hopes they'll reach agreements soon which will allow even more passengers to phone from the skies.

Sending a text around 40 pence - receiving a text will be free.

Simple email sessions will cost between £1 and £2. You can also access the internet - although the service by phone is quite slow.

Trial runs

I did update my Facebook status to show I was on the plane at 32,000ft - it brought back a few comments from puzzled friends.

But with those kind of costs, the plane is clearly not the place for idle chat and passengers could get a nasty surprise if the urge is to tell friends and family about their holidays in detail - when they get their next phone bill.

The technology has been installed in 20 of around 170 planes in the fleet - the majority on the popular London to Dublin shuttle routes.

The investment so far has cost Ryanair between £100,000 and £900,000 and the airline eventually hopes the technology will be installed in the entire fleet.

So will mobile phonecalls, texting and emailing become commonplace on flights?

Emirates Airlines already offers its passengers in-flight phone, text and email, Air France has trialled a system and British Airways says the technology will be installed in a new business orientated service between London City Airport and New York's JFK airport which is due to begin later this year.

But I spoke to many major airlines who all told me they have no plans to follow Ryanair's lead. They say survey after survey shows their passengers don't want mobiles to work on their flights.

So it seems that for now at least, the majority of plane journeys will remain mobile phone free.

Inflight mobile phone technology



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SEE ALSO
Ryanair allows mobile phone use
19 Feb 09 |  Technology
Mobile phone use backed on planes
18 Oct 07 |  Technology

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