Irish Skies Are Humming

Venturing into airspace where Boeing faltered, Irish budget airline Ryanair says it will offer in-flight cell phone service to passengers, pending approval by European aviation authorities.

The Ryanair move comes only two weeks after Boeing announced it would shut down its highly publicized Connexion service for in-flight connectivity, citing airline resistance, high costs, and slow demand from passengers. (See Boeing Disconnects Connexion.)

Created in 1985, Ryanair offers cheap flights from the U.K. to dozens of destinations across Western Europe. The airline's offering, assuming it doesn't get shot down by aviation officials, is a much more modest system than Connexion, offering simple cell service to passengers via a hookup with telecom provider OnAir, which is partly owned by European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co.

Scheduled for mid-2007, the launch demonstrates that demand for airborne connectivity remains strong, says Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group .

"Where Connexion failed was in its complexity," explains Levy. "It required airlines to install equipment that weighed hundreds of pounds onto each aircraft. In an industry where weight is the enemy of bottom line performance, this was a fatal flaw."

The Ryanair plan, by contrast, comprises the equivalent of an on-board wireless router with a satellite uplink plus ground-based connections that will allow passengers to send and receive cell phone calls and text messages. The system will also support basic email via smartphone devices such as BlackBerries and Treos.

Some experts have warned that cell phone use during flights could threaten the safety of the aircraft, but Ryanair says the voice and data traffic will not interfere with critical aircraft communication and control systems. Cell phone use will be limited to times when the plane is above 10,000 feet.

Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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