The biggest onboard cellphone trial to date could finally take to the air within the next month, according to service provider OnAir.
“About 20 installations in Ryanair Boeing 737s are in place but have not yet been switched on,” says OnAir spokeswoman Fredrika Rylander. “Present indications are that the trial will begin some time between Christmas and mid-January.”
The Ryanair programme has been impending for several months. The notoriously margin-conscious low-fare operator says the trial is the precursor for a full fleet fit in over 150 aircraft. But under the leather-skinned leadership of chief executive Michael O’Leary, Ryanair has a long history of driving hard bargains with suppliers and dumping any new initiative that does not rapidly pay off.
If Ryanair does get moving soon, OnAir will find itself with three trials running simultaneously but still no definitive fleet-fit commitment to its cellphone services. The other trials are with TAP Portugal, launched on a single Airbus A319 in July, and with UK carrier bmi, which made a start on Monday after activating the OnAir fit on a single Airbus A320 a few days earlier.
Operating on the London Heathrow-Moscow route, the bmi aircraft will support text messaging, email and laptop Internet access for passengers for the next six months. The aim of the trial, as in the case of an earlier effort by Air France, is to allay concerns raised over the years in the USA about the potential for phone-induced disorder in the cabin.
“It will help us address some of the social and etiquette issues attending the use of mobile communications devices inflight and provide valuable customer feedback,” said bmi managing director Peter Spencer this week. “This will help us decide how the service is developed and rolled out across the rest of our mid-haul fleet.”
Even the most ardent proponents of onboard cellphone would have to admit that its development has been retarded by regulatory caution exacerbated by vigorous anti-phone lobbying in the USA. But next year could at last see OnAir following in the footsteps of rival AeroMobile and beginning to make some money.
Airlines that have said they will offer OnAir cellphone service from next year include Malaysia’s AirAsia and its AirAsia X subsidiary, Airblue of Pakistan, Middle Eastern carrier Jazeera Airways, Kingfisher of India, Oman Air, Royal Jordanian, Shenzhen Airlines of China, Brazil’s TAM and new Kuwait premium carrier Wataniya.
At one point Air France looked like the best bet to become OnAir’s launch customer in the same way that Emirates has committed to AeroMobile. But the French carrier’s trial finished in July and the results are still being digested. In the absence of any move soon from Air France and the rest of the triallists, the first airline to offer OnAir on a full commercial basis could be Wataniya, which says that data service, but not voice, will be available on its four Airbus A320s from the beginning of February.
Long-haul low-fare operator AirAsia X is among the other front-runners. It recently took delivery of the first of 25 Airbus A330-300s equipped for OnAir. The airline plans to offer the service in these aircraft from next year, while parent company AirAsia intends to introduce it on its A320s.
Airblue plans to offer voice, text messaging and email services on up to 12 A320s from next year. Jazeera Airways says it will retrofit six A320s and line-fit a further 34 on order. Oman Air has similar plans for seven A330s, as Royal Jordanian has for its A320s and A340s. Kingfisher intends to introduce email via passenger laptops, followed by cellphone/PDA services, on its A330s.
Shenzhen Airlines made some early running in the hope of having voice and data services in place on a couple of aircraft in time for the Beijing Olympics. But the indications are that the plan foundered on Chinese regulatory complexities and the carrier now talks of implementing on a total of around 50 A320s and Boeing 737s from the middle of next year.
In South America TAM of Brazil plans to launch cellphone/PDA text messaging, email and voice on its A320s in the second half of next year.
Odd man out among the OnAir customer base is Qantas, which has opted for the company’s Webmail and Webchat services, available via either the seatback screen or passenger laptops, wired or wireless, on its Airbus A380s. Full Internet connectivity is due to be added before the end of next year, following the introduction of Inmarsat SwiftBroadband satellite coverage over the Pacific, but the carrier makes no mention of plans for cellphone on these aircraft.
It does however intend to introduce onboard cellphone in Airbus A330-200s and Boeing 767-300s of its domestic fleet following a successful trial with AeroMobile. As well as making Qantas the only carrier in the world to do business with both AeroMobile and OnAir, the decision represents a welcome addition to the former’s customer base, which is significantly smaller than that of its rival.
Apart from Qantas and launch operator Emirates, AeroMobile can point only to current triallist Malaysia Airlines, plus announced commitments from Saudi Arabian Airlines and new low-fare long-haul operator V Australia. On the positive side, Emirates was the first airline in the world to commit unequivocally to onboard cellphone. It is now going ahead with its customary vigour, equipping one aircraft every week on the way to a full fleet fit due to be completed by the end of next year.
V Australia was well set to enter the commercial ring for AeroMobile before the end of this year until delivery of its first Boeing 777-300ER, and thus its own launch, were delayed by this autumn’s Boeing strike. Present plans have V Australia entering business in February and offering AeroMobile data services via Panasonic’s eXPhone system in the aircraft.
Saudi Arabian Airlines is installing AeroMobile in 22 Boeing 777s in preparation for a launch in the second quarter, and Malaysia Airlines started a six-month trial aboard a single Boeing 777-200 at the beginning of last month. “The trial is being conducted to gauge passenger behaviour and acceptability,” said Malaysia Airlines chief executive Dato Seri Idris Jala. “If the findings are positive, we aim to roll out the system in the remainder of our widebody fleet next year.”
Turkish Airlines was announced as an AeroMobile customer at the end of 2007 but has since undergone a change of heart, according to reports in Turkish national newspaper Sabah at the beginning of this year.