Passengers will soon be able to use their own cell phones on commercial airliners, under a deal signed Tuesday by European aeronautics giant Airbus and a Geneva-based technology firm.
OnAir's voice and data systems will be a standard option on all new Airbus superjumbo A380 planes from 2006, giving passengers on short- and long-haul flights the chance make calls using their own phones, Chief Executive George Cooper said.
The technology could also be fitted to Boeing jets, and will be used to give passengers Internet access using their own laptops, he said.
"It is going to rapidly become something that people are going to be very upset if they don't have," Cooper told The Associated Press in an interview. "It's not many years ago when most of us had phones that didn't work everywhere, now we expect them to work anywhere."
Users of mobile phones with roaming capability will be able to make and receive calls using a base station within the airplane, which will use GSM technology, the main European system.
Most users will not be able to connect to U.S. or Asian networks, but Cooper said OnAir had "focused on the mobile phone side on GSM, because that is the dominant standard and will be for years."
The company is banking on a large increase in GSM-compatible phones being sold in North America and Asia, he said. But "the main market for voice is short-haul," as business travelers within a connected Europe will increasingly see such a service as a necessity.
"Short-haul journeys tend to be part of a business day, they tend to be in daylight and the person you are calling is quite likely to be in the same time zone as you," Cooper said.
"We think it's likely that the day will come when, if you don't have this, you may actually not get some of those passengers."
OnAir estimates the global market for airliner Internet access at about $400 million annually. For mobile telephone service, revenues could be four times as high.
That would make the combined market worth some $2 billion, catering to more than 700 million people.
Other airlines interested
The company — a joint venture of Airbus and Netherlands-based IT company SITA Information Networking Computing — is aiming to sell its services to airlines, which could then use the technology in other plane models.
European and Asian companies, as well as some American airlines, have already shown strong interest in fitting their planes with OnAir's technology, Cooper said, declining to name firms that have placed orders.
OnAir hopes that the surcharge for mobile phone use will be competitive, with international call rates at about $2 to $2.50 per minute. A text message should cost about 50 cents to send or receive.
Prices for Internet access will be higher, at about $15 per flight for basic services such as e-mail and $30 for a more comprehensive service, Cooper said.
Planes can be fitted with either wired or wireless connections, but so far airlines have been more keen to use wireless because it weighs less and is cheaper, Cooper said. To log on to the Internet, a user would then need a wireless-capable laptop.
"It is as if we are creating a new country in the sky," Cooper said, stressing that airlines will find ways to regulate the use of cell phones and laptops "so that it doesn't annoy everybody."
Crews will be able to switch the system off when the aircraft enters its local night and the blinds go down. Mobile service could be disconnected, while still allowing text services, he said.
Airlines may introduce new seating plans, to allow nonusers to avoid the noise and potential annoyance from mobile phone conversations, Cooper suggested.
Seattle-based Connexion, a rival provider backed by Boeing, offers a similar Internet service on all Lufthansa flights, allowing passengers to log on using their own laptops at comparable rates of $9.95 for 30 minutes to $29.95 flights longer than six hours.