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British Airways adds OnAir to London City-JFK all-business service

24th January 2009 - 18:42 GMT | by The Shephard News Team

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The onboard cellphone community was lifted today when British Airways said it would introduce the OnAir service on one of its operations.

The UK carrier has decided to offer OnAir’s GSM-based text messaging, email and Internet capabilities on the London City-New York JFK all-business service due for launch in September.

And that wasn’t the only good news for the companies that have laboured long and hard to get onboard cellphone past the regulators. Kuwaiti premium-only carrier Wataniya Airways, which is placed to be the first OnAir customer to offer a full commercial service, flew its first passengers today. And AeroMobile, whose launch customer Emirates was the first in the world to make onboard cellphone a standard offering, has been shortlisted by the GSM Association for a coveted Global Mobile Award.    

British Airways passengers on the Airbus A318s that will ply the London City-JFK route will be able to use their own mobiles and BlackBerry-type devices to send and receive text messages and emails, and to access the Internet. Users of laptops fitted with GSM data cards will also be able to go online. Though British Airways makes no mention of voice, the OnAir aircraft system can offer it at the touch of a switch.

“This is a great service for our customers, whom we know want to do business in the air or simply stay in touch via email or text,” said BA chief executive Willie Walsh. “It’s a perfect fit for our new business-only service from London City.”

For all that it covers just a couple of aircraft, the British Airways move will come as a big boost for OnAir, which has seen a lot of trials but so far no full commercial introduction to match Emirates’ no-strings-attached fleetwide introduction of the rival AeroMobile service. Air France has trialled OnAir, bmi and TAP Portugal are doing so, and Ryanair continues to play hard-to-get about launching what would be the biggest evaluation yet.

Currently best bet for a genuine launch operator is Wataniya, whose chief executive George Cooper used to be in charge at OnAir. The carrier’s four leased Airbus A320s are being equipped for the service, but it is not known if it was available to today’s first paying customers.    

Otherwise, OnAir is pinning its hopes on Air Asia and its Air Asia X subsidiary, Airblue of Pakistan, Jazeera Airways, Kingfisher, Oman Air, Royal Jordanian, Shenzhen Airlines and TAM of Brazil, all of which have said they will offer service.

Though AeroMobile currently holds a big trump card in Emirates, its customer list is shorter, comprising the Dubai giant plus Saudi Arabian Airlines, Qantas, V Australia and current triallist Malaysia Airlines. So the company is making the most of any credit-building opportunity that comes its way, the latest being the prospect of a gong from the GSM Association.

AeroMobile is a finalist in the Best Mobile Technology Breakthrough category of the annual Global Mobile Awards. The nomination recognises the innovative nature of the UK-based company’s onboard system, though in truth it’s not all that different from OnAir’s in conception – both are based on a miniature GSM base station, leaky feeder cabin antenna, provision to prevent mobiles from trying to log on directly to ground networks, and an Inmarsat satellite air-to-ground link.

“To have been nominated from a high-quality field of more than 450 companies is a tremendous achievement,” GSM Association chief executive Rob Conway said last week. “We await with great interest the announcement of the winners at the next month’s Global Mobile Awards evening in Barcelona.”

The AeroMobile system is currently installed in a total of 28 Emirates aircraft and, the company says, has been accessed by over 80,000 passengers to date.

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