Ryanair plans to allow passengers mobile access to voice and text communications on all its flights from the middle of 2007.
The budget airline announced on Wednesday that it will partner with OnAir, an Airbus and Sita joint in-flight communications venture, which plans to fit the entire Ryanair fleet with technology called Mobile OnAir. Initially 50 aircraft will be equipped by mid-2007, with further installations following.
"There's clearly a trial element, but we don't have any concerns that people won't use it," said Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, at a press briefing in London. "If it doesn't work, clearly it'll come off the aircraft," O'Leary added.
Passengers will be charged to make and receive voice calls and SMS messages via satellite broadband links, and to use push email such as BlackBerry. The connection between the plane and ground is carried by satellite operator Inmarsat.
When asked about the cost of the service, Ryanair said that it would "mirror" international roaming charges, even on national flights. These roaming rates can vary wildly between operators and countries. Ryanair will charge operators a commission on call revenues.
"We're getting a commission from operators, but it's a relatively small commission rate," O'Leary told ZDNet UK.
The companies also need regulatory approval before they can launch the service.
"The regulatory aspect represents some risk to the schedule, but it's not a question of if but when [the plan is approved]," said O'Leary. "It's a big blockage that no one is allowed to use mobiles on aircraft. Once we have regulatory approval, Internet access will follow," O'Leary told ZDNet UK.
Planes will be fitted with a pico cell — a GSM antenna in the ceiling of the aircraft which allows phones to connect to the satellite link. Because the antenna is close to the mobiles, they only require low power to connect, according to George Cooper, chief executive of OnAir.
"The power output is so low that it doesn't interfere with the avionics," said Cooper.
The ground network will be provided by Monaco Telecom, OnAir's telecoms partner. Customers will only be able to use their phones above 10,000 feet, which will prevent them from connecting to domestic mobile networks instead.
Air France will be the first airline to trial OnAir's satellite-based technology early next year, followed by the UK's BMI and Portugal's TAP.
Earlier this month Boeing said it would close its loss-making, high-speed broadband communications service, Connexion, taking charges of up to $320m in the second half of 2006.