Air France has become the first airline to offer international passengers email
and textmessaging service thats based on standard cell phone technology.
The catch: Its only available on a single Airbus A318 aircraft in the Air
France fleet, and passengers wont know ahead of time whether the service will
be available on their flight.
"That will be a surprise every day," Marina Tymen, Air France spokesperson, said
Thursday. "They will be aware of that just when they look at the information
leaflet and the questionnaire [in the seat pocket] in front of them."
Another clue: a new "no mobile" light next to ones for "no smoking" and "fasten
your seat belt."
Tower in the Sky
The sixmonth trial, which launched Monday on a ParistoWarsaw flight, will
initially be limited to messaging and email on passengers cell phones with GSM
(Global System for Mobile communications) technology, the kind prevalent outside
the United States. Voice calling will come later.
The airline equipped the A318 with an onboard cell "tower," allowing phones to
communicate without interfering with navigational equipment, officials say. The
onboard tower connects with the ground through a satellite system.
The setup, approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency, was provided by
OnAir, a Genevabased joint venture between Airbus and SITA, an
informationtechnology company serving airlines.
First for International Flights
Australias Qantas Airways already has been testing a similar service on
domestic flights using technology from rival AeroMobile, a joint venture of
ARINC and Telenor.
JetBlue Airways started tests this month of limited email and messaging
services in the United States, using a wireless WiFi system rather than an
onboard cellular network, which is not yet approved by U.S. regulators.
Air France said it would await the results of the trial before deciding whether
to equip the rest of its fleet.
Waiting in the Wings
Passengers will be billed directly by their cellular provider at rates officials
say are comparable to international roaming.
OnAir plans to service European nofrills carrier Ryanair, British Midland
Airways and Portugals TAP by mid2008. Later customers include Royal Jordanian
Airlines, Chinas Shenzhen Airlines and Indias Kingfisher Airlines.
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