Although several airlines have been testing similar services for quite some time, according to this recent press release Dubai’s Emirates Airlines has been the first introducing in-flight mobile phone services on Airbus (March 2008) and now Boeing aircrafts, allowing passengers to make calls and send SMS messages with their mobile phones during flights.

As you know all other airlines strictly prohibit the use of mobile phones during flights, even though there’s no clear evidence of the danger of  electromagnetic interference to aircraft systems caused by cellphones and other electronic devices. A wikipedia entry on the issue collects results from the few tests that have been performed and statements from various experts, with mixed answers on the issue, although it’s safe to say all equipment on modern airplanes is heavily shielded and thus immune to any interference from mobile phones. Although cellphone use on planes is in fact possible below 10,000 feet and on my plane I often use it to check emails on my BlackBerry and some people do the same even on commercial flights (an empirical study shows that “at least one mobile phone is likely to be left on throughout a typical flight”), commercial airlines never had any good reason to do proper testing and allow mobile phones usage on flights.

Things start changing now that companies like AeroMobile and OnAir (an Airbus joint venture) are offering airlines the opportunity to let their passengers use their phones on board and make money out of it. These companies install picocells (devices that act like very small radio towers) on aircrafts that route mobile phone calls via satellite to the ground network and screening systems that stop the cellphones contacting the ground. Thanks to this technology these companies can charge the passengers’ mobile phone operators that in turn will charge their users roaming rates of as much as €3 per minute, and airlines will get a slice of the pie. Not surprisingly, Ryanair plans to provide the service on its entire fleet and many other airlines are testing the service as well.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Pedro Reis Colaço on August 27, 2008  · 

Sameer Nadkarni on August 28, 2008  · 

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