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Two airlines to test in-flight cell phones

Two European airlines will allow passengers to use their cell phones on commercial flights within western Europe.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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, 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 slated for 2007, 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.

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 within Europe at some point next year.

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.

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.