Europe aims be the launch pad for the world's first aircraft offering commercial mobile phone service when an Airbus A318 operated by Air France takes off in March.

The aircraft will offer onboard mobile phone service on short-haul flights within Europe and to and from North African destinations as part of a commercial test from March to September 2007, Air France and its technology partners Airbus SAS and Sita said yesterday.

The aircraft will be equipped with technology provided by OnAir, a joint venture owned by Airbus and SITA, which aims to provide a range of communication services such as telephony, email and web surfing to passengers.

The plans come as US regulators continue to debate possible interference issues associated with aircraft radio systems.

In essence OnAir's technology emulates a mobile network inside an aircraft. The specially designed pico-cell system, for instance, allows mobile devices to operate at lower transmission power and thus eliminate interference with other radio systems, according to the company's website. The system also ensures that phones on board can't attempt to log on to terrestrial networks.

Two other European airlines, British carrier BMI (formerly British Midland Airlines) and TAP-Air Portugal, have tested the OnAir system but, unlike Air France, have yet to purchase the equipment and announce commercial service.

In addition to telephony, Air France will allow passengers to use GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones and other GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) portable devices to send SMS (Short Message Service) messages, receive or send email and surf the internet using WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) and I-mode.

To determine demand, the French airlines will ask all passengers using the service to complete a questionnaire. Depending on their response, the company will decide how many additional aircraft will offer the service.

Details about pricing were not available.