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IP/09/526

Brussels, 2 April 2009

First European airlines offering in-flight use of mobile phones thanks to EU-wide ground rules

More and more European air passengers are being offered the choice to use their normal mobile phone to send text messages, browse the web or even make calls on board airplanes. One year after the European Commission put in place common rules for safe use of mobile phones on aircrafts and for simple and non-bureaucratic authorisations of this essentially cross border service, 27 European aircraft have been equipped to allow the secure use of standard GSM handsets onboard aircraft while flying in European airspace. The number of aircrafts enabled for in-flight use of mobile phones is expected to double by the end of the year.

"The possibility to use a mobile phone onboard an aircraft is particularly sought after by business travellers and younger passengers. In addition, in-flight GSM offers are an interesting business model for European companies. This is why a year ago, the European Commission created a legal framework for companies who want to offer mobile communications on-board aircrafts in a safe and simple way in European skies without having to go through 27 different national authorisation procedures," said Viviane Reding, the EU's Telecoms Commissioner. "I welcome the fact that the first airlines in Europe are now offering in-flight mobile phone use. There are two conditions for a further successful take-up of this new service: first of all, in-flight mobile phone use should not disturb other passengers, for example by leaving ample room for quiet zones during air travel, just like in trains. Secondly, attention should be paid by the operators that prices for these services remain at a reasonable level. If these two conditions are met, then offering on-board mobile phone services can be a bonus for European companies in the competitive global air travel market."

In April 2008, the Commission introduced rules to harmonise conditions for mobile phone services on aircraft across the EU (IP/08/537). One year later, these enabling rules have allowed two providers of mobile communications services on-board airplanes (MCA), OnAir (Geneva) and AeroMobile (London) to start business in Europe. They associate themselves with airlines interested in making such services available to their passengers.

Presently, three European airlines – Ryanair (Ireland), TAP (Portugal) and bmi (United Kingdom) – are building up the service in their fleets: 27 aircraft have already been equipped and the number of MCA-enabled aircraft is expected to double by end of this year. This constitutes a promising start, while technical trials are taking place in other airlines.

Meanwhile, the airlines are fine-tuning the conditions under which passengers can use their phone on-board aircraft to ensure wider consumer acceptance of the new service, and are analysing the service take-up on those aircraft that are already equipped. Current indications are that the price of on-board phone services so far start from approx. €1.60 per minute for a voice call and approx. €0.43 for a text message, depending on the terrestrial mobile service provider whose subscription the passenger is using.

The Commission took regulatory action in 2008 to allow for the safe and EU-wide operation of mobile communications on-board aircraft, and create the conditions for businesses to offer these services on flights that often cross several borders. This required three steps:

  • to ensure that the use of equipment on board including the passengers' handsets does not cause interference with the aircraft's equipment and systems.
  • to ensure that mobile equipment does not interfere with terrestrial mobile communications networks but connects exclusively to the on-board base station linked to the ground via satellite;
  • to offer common rules and standards so that on-board base stations are authorised to operate as a plane flies over different EU Member States.

A model for other continents

The European approach has served as a model for use in other regions. Several airlines outside Europe (including Qantas, Emirates, Malaysian Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Wataniya, Virgin Australia) have been testing the service or are offering it, with some 40 aircraft already equipped. Other airlines have announced similar intentions. The prevalence worldwide of the GSM standard (currently used by almost 3 billion people) makes the business model attractive, as passengers can use their normal mobile phone.

Background

Mobile communication services on aircraft (MCA) are pan-European telecoms services. Two measures were adopted by the Commission in April 2008 (IP/08/537):

  • A Commission Decision setting out harmonised technical parameters for onboard equipment for in-flight mobile phone use throughout the EU. These technical specifications ensure that equipment does not generate interference and forms the basis for the certification of airworthiness of equipment for different airplane types by the competent authority (EASA). The Decision is legally binding, ensuring the same type of equipment is used on all aircrafts.
  • A Commission Recommendation for a harmonised approach on licensing which will promote mutual recognition between national authorisations for mobile communications services on aircraft.

The 'airline roaming', or mobile calls and text messages on-board aircraft is treated as international roaming similar to terrestrial roaming services. The first examples show that the tariffs are significantly lower than the in-flight fixed telephone services via satellite links offered in the past. The in-flight mobile communications fall outside the scope of the Commission's regulatory actions targeted to reduce international roaming tariffs for voice and data, as they are considered an innovative service on an emerging market. The cost of mobile communications on-board aircraft is therefore fixed by the service provider. The European Commission is, however, closely monitoring the levels and transparency of prices charged to consumers.

Further information:

The EU Radio Spectrum Policy web page on MCA services:

http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/policy/ecomm/radio_spectrum/topics/ecs/mca/index_en.htm

MEMO/08/220

For more information on the current MCA service providers and their airline partners in Europe and elsewhere, see also:

http://www.onair.aero/

http://www.aeromobile.net/


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