Air France Tests Cell Services

Air France has become the first airline to offer international passengers e-mail and text-messaging service that's based on standard cell phone technology. The catch: It's only available on a single Airbus A318 aircraft in the Air France fleet, and passengers won't know ahead of time whether the service will be available on their flight. "That will be a surprise every day," Air France spokeswoman Marina Tymen said Thursday. "They will be aware of that just when they look at the information leaflet and the questionnaire (in the seat pocket) in front of them." Another clue: a new "no mobile" light next to ones for "no smoking" and "fasten your seat belt."

The six-month trial, which launched Monday on a Paris-to-Warsaw flight, will initially be limited to messaging and e-mail on passengers' cell phones with GSM technology, the kind prevalent outside the United States. Voice calling will come later. The airline equipped the A318 with an onboard cell "tower," allowing phones to communicate without interfering with navigational equipment, officials say. The onboard tower connects with the ground through a satellite system. The setup, approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency, was provided by OnAir, a Geneva-based joint venture between Airbus and SITA, an information-technology company serving airlines.

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