'Hello, I'm on the plane...'

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The Independent Online

Conversations beginning "Hello, I'm on the plane" zoomed closer after Ofcom, the communications regulator, today approved the use of mobile phones on airlines.

Ofcom said that, providing safety regulators approve, passengers should be able to make and receive calls and texts once they reach 3,000 ft.

Passengers may also be able to download their own in-flight movie onto hand-held TV screens rather than choose from the on-board selection.

Mobile use will not be able to be used for months yet, however. The European Aviation Safety Agency has to approve mobiles for each type of aircraft, before individuals apply to the national regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK.

So far the European Aviation Safety Agency has only approved one licence,for a test on an AirFrance Airbus 318.

However spokesman Daniel Holtgen said the agency was currently studying four other applications, and expected later this year to announce its decision on one for the Boeing 737, an aircraft popular with budget airlines.

Europe's biggest airline, the no-frills operator Ryanair has signalled that it hopes to start charging for mobile phones as soon as possible.

Other airlines such as BA and easyJet are wary about whether their use would antagonise customers.

"The benefit is that it would be a service we could sell. But the downside is whether customers really want to be on a flight with lots of people on mobile phones," an easyJet spokeswoman said.

Mobile phones are currently banned on flights because of concerns that handsets straining to contact base stations warp signals to navigation equipment.

Passengers can use aircraft telephones from their seats in first and business classes but the services are expensive and seldom used.

Announcing its decision on a six-month consultation launched in October, Ofcom said: "The safety of passengers is paramount and mobile systems on aircraft will only be installed when they have secured approval by EASA and the CAA in the UK.

"If such approval has been secured it will be a matter for individual airlines to judge whether there is consumer demand for these services."

Under the new system proposed by Ofcom, each plane would have a small base station on board.

Once the aircraft reached 3,000 metres, cabin crew would switch on the system. Mobile handsets would use the aircraft's network service via a satellite link to the network on the ground.

Calls would be billed through passengers' normal service providers. They are expected to be more expensive than on the ground.

The service will be restricted initially to 2G voice and text services but, if successful, may be extended to the new 3G generation of mobiles.

Ofcom said it would encourage mobile network operators and on-board service providers to advertise call charges to passengers.

When Ryanair signalled its intention to allow mobiles in 2006, Michael O'Leary, its chief executive, said: "The focus of the Ofcom report was long-haul flights, with interrupting people at 3am. Onboard Ryanair flights we don't allow anybody to sleep because we are too busy selling them products."