Air France launches in-flight mobile phone trial

Air France launched a commercial trial of onboard cell phone use, for now allowing only short messaging and e-mail.

Air France launched a commercial trial of an onboard mobile phone service, but in a limited fashion that avoids a controversial aspect.

Travelers on certain Air France planes on European routes can send and receive short messages and, provided their phones support Internet access, send and receive e-mails.

Initially, travelers won't be able to make or receive voice calls. That limitation skirts an important issue: whether mobile phone talkers will annoy nearby passengers.

However, in about three months, Air France does plan to allow voice calls, but said it will regulate the service "to maintain passengers' comfort and well-being." It did not explain how it might do that.

Onboard calls and messages are routed through a small cellular base station inside the plane. From there, messages are transmitted over satellite to the ground and then on to the telephone network. The service is supplied by OnAir, a company part owned by airplane maker Airbus.

To use their phones, passengers must dial as if they're making an international call. Air France did not say how much each message would cost for users, but said the price is comparable to traditional mobile phone use.

The planes come equipped with a new illuminated sign that instructs passengers when to keep their phones off. Travelers can send and receive messages only when the plane rises above 10,000 feet.

Tips for using the service will be explained on a leaflet in seat pockets, Air France said. In addition, users will be able to fill out a survey about their experiences using it. After six months, Air France will consider whether to launch the service on all of its flights.

Airlines and regulators worldwide have been considering onboard cell phone use for years. Some regulators, including the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, have banned mobile phone use on airplanes. The European Union, however, has approved the idea, and various national regulators there have begun to allow it. Airlines in other regions, like Qantas, are also conducting more limited tests of the service.

JetBlue, Yahoo and Research In Motion recently launched a service on one airplane in the U.S. that allows users to send and receive e-mail from BlackBerry phones, Wi-Fi smartphones and laptops. However, the service uses an onboard Wi-Fi network instead of cellular phone technology.

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Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service

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