Two European airlines plan to launch a service late next year that will allow passengers to use their mobile phones on flights within western Europe.

Under a deal announced yesterday at the World Airline Entertainment Association Conference in Hamburg, British carrier BMI and TAP-Air Portugal have agreed to introduce the in-flight voice and text messaging service provided by OnAir, a joint venture between European aircraft manufacturer Airbus SAS and SITA, a provider of air transport IT services.

The carriers hope to be among the world's first to offer in-flight mobile phone services, which are currently banned on aircraft for fear of interference with radio navigation systems.

Although the various agencies responsible for radio communications and airline safety in the US have yet to approve the use of mobile phones in airplanes, officials in Europe have signalled interest in allowing use of the technology.

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.

Last year, Airbus successfully completed an in-flight trial of mobile phones and infrastructure equipment based on GSM technology using an Airbus A320. The services tested include: GSM telephony, web browsing, email and connectivity to a VPN (virtual private network).

The trial also tested several wireless broadband services, including 3G (third generation); WCDMA (Wideband Code Division Multiple Access) technology; WLAN (wireless LAN) using the Wi-Fi standard 802.11; and short-range Bluetooth.