Press Release
Press Release

OnAir to offer onboard GSM retrofits for Boeings from mid-2007
OnAir to offer onboard GSM retrofits for Boeings from mid-2007
March 10, 2006

ONAIR says it’s on course to win a first approval to retrofit onboard GSM hardware in a Boeing type in the second quarter of next year.

The company also expects to announce at least one new customer at the beginning of next month, and says its Airbus-based airborne system development schedule is holding up, though service launch may move into the beginning of next year. “We’re still aiming to enter service towards the end of this year, though there’s a chance that may slip a little,” says CEO George Cooper. “But the system and the relevant certification and regulatory work are all on track.”

The Airbus/SITA joint venture is talking to European airlines operating single-aisle Boeings and wants to be able to offer them retrofits, according to Cooper. “We are about to select an MRO company to develop the maiden supplemental type certificate (STC) for a Boeing aircraft,” he says. “The chosen company will be supported by Airbus, since a lot of the information from the Airbus service-bulletin process now under way will be applicable.”

Once the Boeing STC has been granted, the developer will be available to carry out retrofits or to offer the data package to other MROs and airline engineering departments.

OnAir has so far announced two expressions of airline interest in its GSM service. Last September UK carrier bmi and TAP Portugal declared that they would carry out trials from the end of this year. Other early adopters are likely to come from a group of around five European airlines now in advanced negotiations with OnAir. Of those, at least one may be announced at the Aircraft Interiors show in Hamburg next month.

In the meantime, the development and certification of OnAir’s airborne equipment is under way at Airbus. “All of the various components are in development,” says Cooper. “Some are in the lab and will shortly be installed on a full-time Airbus test aircraft. Over the coming months more and more elements of the system will be added so that by early October the prototype will be fully working on the A320-family test aircraft and certification will be in train.”

At the same time, Airbus is working through a line-fit installation on an aircraft now in production and due to fly early next year, as well as developing a service bulletin for a retrofit package. The first example of the latter will be installed on an existing in-service aircraft towards the end of this year.

“The bigger market is the one for retrofits, but there’s also a sizeable line-fit market that will be made even more significant by Airbus’s plans to boost A320-family production,” comments Cooper. “So we intend by the end of this year or early next to have both line-fit and retrofit availability on the A320 family.”

The retrofit package is being designed to be modular in order to minimise aircraft downtime. The main consumer of time is the Inmarsat high-gain antenna installation, which necessitates fuselage penetrations and about two days on the ground for pressure testing. “bmi has decided to schedule this work to coincide with an aircraft C-check,” says Cooper. “Other carriers may do it differently.”

Otherwise, each of the constituent work packages in the service bulletin is being designed for completion during a normal overnight stop: “Night 1, take down the ceiling panels and put in the leaky cable antenna. Night 2, put in the rack for the LRUs, and so on.”

On the regulatory side, Cooper reports that OnAir’s concept of regional frameworks based on the recognition of one national telecommunications authority’s licence by all the others in the region continues to hold up well. “There is some small uncertainty in the regulatory process, but the way things look it’s going to be all right for entry into service late this year or early next,” he says.

OnAir plans to launch in Europe, and then to move eastwards. “The regulatory processes in the Gulf and Asia-Pacific have gone as far as they can and are now waiting for the output from Europe,” says Cooper. “They’ll take that same framework approach and then start their own compatibility studies to ensure that there is indeed no interference from the air with cellular networks on the ground. That will clear the way for national telecoms authorities to grant licences to their airlines.”

Last week’s revelation of yet another report, by the US Carnegie Mellon University, suggesting an airworthiness hazard from onboard cellphone leaves Cooper unmoved. “This report and others like it seem to ignore the fact that what we are developing is designed to ensure that the things they identify as problems cease to be problems. If you have someone like Airbus involved in a project, safety is absolutely the No 1 priority.”

Cooper is also confident that OnAir and broader air transport industry activities that have been under way for some time now will help to calm the “social factors” hysteria that broke out last year in North America and to a lesser extent elsewhere.

“We do accept that some people are implacably against mobile phones on aircraft – and probably anywhere else,” he says. “So we think the way an airline manages its cabin is going to determine whether that small group will be happy or not. To that end, we are talking a lot our early airlines about what needs to be done, and we’re also part of the IATA social factors working group.”

The group is now tackling detail such as a set of standard cabin addresses designed to indicate to passengers the level of service they can expect at any point in the flight, and to encourage them to reset their phones to avoid nuisance. “How airlines take the standard approach being developed by the working group and then adapt it to the regional differences in mobile phone norms displayed by their core markets could well become a major service differentiator,” Cooper comments.

Ultimately, OnAir believes that the objections voiced last year may in practice prove to be less significant than was feared. “The more you get into it, the more you realise that while people may say they’re worried about other people using onboard cellphone, they will also admit if asked that they too would like to use such a service,” says Adrian Gane, the company’s recently appointed chief commercial officer.

“We’ll learn more in the trials, of course, but the fact is that an aircraft is a different environment from a railway carriage or a bus – the ambient noise is higher, for one thing. Overall, nuisance tends not to be much of an issue when you talk to the airlines and the passengers directly.”