Racal unveils phone calls from the clouds


Life got tougher for slackers, philanderers and Luddites yesterday as Racal and Swissair conspired to put you on the end of a phone even at 30,000 feet.

Those who relish the luxury of being incommunicado will be relieved, however, that the inaugural London-Geneva flight of Swissair's short-haul satellite phone service had its glitches.

The airline made two errors. First it invited journalists to test the system, Europe's first, almost guaranteeing gremlins. And to compound the problem, it offered free calls to anywhere in the world, successfully jamming the system.

A diligent attempt to touch base with the office from above Calais was still waiting in line as the Airbus passed Auxerre.

It was probably an unfairly demanding test. Swissair reckons its long haul flights usually generate only about nine calls, casting doubts on whether the system will ever pay for itself in its current guise as a service to passengers.

Free calls proved irresistible, with one caller more than satisfied with the reception on his 15 minute chat with Australia.

At a flat $8.60 a minute, however, the reluctance of callers is perhaps understandable, even if one long-haul passenger has managed to log a call lasting two hours and three minutes.

Fax transmission is technically feasible, but at $40 a sheet, demand is reported to be slow.

Interestingly, Swissair reckons it makes no difference whether it charges $8 a minute or $13 - if you really need to make a call from the air, you're probably not paying for it anyway.

Actually, if you really do want a bit of peace and quiet in the air, you are safe for the time being. For security reasons, incoming messages have to be left in the cockpit. It's up to the passenger to swipe a credit card and return the call.

The ability to make calls around the globe from above the clouds will grab the imagination, but according to Racal, what the airlines are really excited about is the enormous scope for cost savings the system potentially offers over current, worryingly imprecise procedures.

Something airlines are loath to shout about is the fact that halfway across the Atlantic no one really knows where a plane is at all. That means aircraft have to keep close to pre-determined routes and a long, long way from each other.

Satellite communications, and the pinpoint tracking they provide even miles out of a country's airspace, should mean that aircraft can fly much closer together, can avoid costly stacking above congested airports and steer clear of turbulence.

One estimate puts the potential savings at $250,000 per plane a year.

Apart from the fact that airlines will have to adopt the system because only wired up planes will get the best routes, the savings should mean that these systems become standard.

The system's developers - it has been put together by a consortium of Racal, Honeywell, Sita, Claircom and Immarsat, the satellite operator - not surprisingly talk with starry-eyed enthusiasm about the potential for satellite communications in the air.

Teleconferencing between travelling executives and their offices will become routine, they believe. If you really can't wait, you can check your electronic mail in Washington while you jet from London to Lisbon.

Eventually it is hoped to provide real-time share prices in the air and news headlines in a babel of languages.

This is the future and it looks pretty stressful.

Investment Column, page 27