Posted on 24.06.2007 - 08:29 EDT in SCIENCE & TECH NEWS by ginamc
One of the last telephone-free environments on the planet, the airplane, is about to be connected, allowing travellers to make mobile phone calls at high altitude.
Requests to switch off cellphones and fasten seatbelts are a familiar part of the take-off routine for airline passengers, but a European company has found a way to make dialling safe and link up people from above the clouds.
"Cabin connectivity is here," chief commercial officer of OnAir, Graham Lake, said at the Paris Air Show this week. His company, a joint venture between European plane maker Airbus and airline IT group Sita, received a green light from the European Aviation Safety Agency on Monday to begin fitting equipment to commercial jets.
Approval from a handful of national telecommunication regulators are the final hurdles, Lake says: "What we are confident of now is that we'll have pan-European approval to operate before the end of 2007."
The technology is to be operated by an Air France plane for the first time in September 2007 and will then roll out across the world, with low-cost operators Ireland-based Ryanair and Malaysia's AirAsia some of the biggest clients.
"It's the first time anywhere in the world that a system has been authorised and confirmed for the safe operation of phones and BlackBerry-type devices on aircraft," Lake said.
The expansion timetable means European consumers will be the first to be able to use the technology with Air France, Ryanair, British low-cost BMI and Portugal's TAP.
Some companies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East are expected to begin installing the OnAir equipment in 2008, but the more complicated markets of Japan and the US will have to wait until 2009.
Lake acknowledges that the idea of mobile phones being used in the confined space of an airliner risks making talkative travellers a serious threat to peace.
"One wouldn't necessarily want to be sat next to someone who talked for the whole flight," he said. "But the cabin crew have control over the system. If an aircraft is flying overnight, they can decide to de-activate it for example."
The service can be shut down to prevent calls, or partially de-activated to allow only text messages or BlackBerry use.
One fear about using cellphones on planes was that during flight, cellphones would emit their maximum limit of electromagnetic radiation as they attempted to communicate with distant towers on the ground.
OnAir says its system will prevent this by responding to cellphone signals onboard, curbing their need to boost their signal beyond the aircraft.
In 2005, OnAir told New Scientist its system would consist of a cable called a "leaky line" that would snake around the cabin, probably near the overhead lockers. The line would channel cellphone signals to a dinner plate-sized "picocell", which would transmit them at a safe, controlled frequency to a satellite, which would bounce them to the ground.
To prevent the phones from interfering with the ground network, the system will only be available above 3 kilometres (9000 feet), which is achieved four minutes after take-off and maintained until 10 minutes before landing.
If a sense of consideration for fellow passengers does not promote respectful phone use, then the connection price is likely to compel all but the wealthiest travellers to make calls with moderation.
Lake believes the average price will be about $2.50 (€1.9) per minute for calls and about $0.50 per SMS message.
The revenue will be split three ways between OnAir, the user's mobile phone operator and, crucially, the airline itself. The contribution to the airline makes the idea of the technology particularly appealing to low-cost operators, whose businesses are based on generating cash from sources other than ticket sales.
Lake believes that another two or three operators will enter the market to supply high-altitude telecom equipment in the coming years, meaning phone calls on planes could become commonplace.
He argues that mobile phones are not really much of a danger for planes, citing research by OnAir that shows about 10% of people forget to turn their phones off during flights. "If there was any profound safety issue associated with this, then it would have manifested itself already," Lake said.