Haven't there been times when you're stuck circling above the runway waiting for "clearance from air traffic control" that you've wanted to send a quick text to your ride home explaining you're running late?
Maybe you've been thousands of feet up over the mid-Atlantic and realized you've forgotten to pass on some very important information. If only you could just call from your cell phone …
If you're flying Air France these are no longer just wishes.
Together with OnAir, the airline is testing the world's first in-flight mobile phone service. While Qantas already offers mobile coverage to its domestic passengers in Australia, Air France is the first to extend the service to international flights.
This new service comes at a time when the logistics of flying are becoming ever more challenging — extra security measures, the increasing number of passengers and delays, delays, delays. It can be a real struggle for families, the elderly and even seasoned business travelers.
Passengers traveling on board one of the Air France's Airbus A318 aircraft fitted with this new service and operating European routes can now send and receive data (SMS, MMS and e-mails via all phones with Internet access). During the second half of the trial, in about three months, passengers will be able to make and receive phone calls.
The first flight offering this new service took place Monday between Paris and Warsaw, Poland, Air France announced.
Reactions seemed very positive among passengers. "I just gained another hour of work, being able to send e-mails from onboard the aircraft. We will no longer waste time traveling by air, with this new service," said one passenger. "It's perfect. I just sent my wife an e-mail to let her know I was arriving and she replied to it." Added another: "It works fine."
At the end of the six-month trial, Air France will examine feedback from customers to determine whether to launch this service on all its flights and whether to offer both data and voice or just data, depending on the level of noise discomfort experienced by the customers.
"We want to be sure that Air France passengers won't be bothered by the fact that some other passengers onboard may have some phone conversations. Air France is aware that in some circumstances, this might be difficult for some people," Carole Peytavin, Air France marketing director, told ABC News.
The Mobile OnAir onboard mobile telephony system, certified by the European Aviation Safety Authority, does not interfere with the radio-navigation instruments on the Airbus A318 and may only be used at cruising altitude once the new illuminated sign "Switch off your phone" is turned off.
The system is activated at 10,000 feet. Passengers can activate this service by dialing a specific number provided in an information leaflet placed in seat pockets. The mobile device then connects to a miniature cellular network installed inside the aircraft. A modem transmits data and calls to a satellite that routes them to a ground station.
Data and calls are then routed to the passengers' usual telephone network. This network is located inside the aircraft. Passengers' mobile phones only emit at minimum power, which does not interfere with aircraft avionics or ground telecom networks.
Phones are used just like on the ground. The cost of data exchanges are invoiced by the customers' telephone operator and are comparable to those used for normal international mobile phone calls.
"You make calls and send data just as if you were on the ground. It's very simple," an OnAir spokesman told ABC News.
Several other airlines are about to start testing the service: U.K's BMI and Portugal's TAP will start offering it during the first quarter of 2008. Ryanair will equip 25 of its aircraft by March 2008. India's Kingfisher, Air Asia, China's Shenzhen Airlines and Royal Jordanian will start tests soon.
OnAir is not in discussions with U.S. airlines because network technologies for cellular service are not the same in the United States and Europe, Asia and other parts of the world. This new OnAir service is not compatible with the CDMA standard used in the United States. But it works with the GSM standard used in 73 percent of the worldwide market.