NEW YORK 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.
Australia's Qantas Airways Ltd. already has been testing a similar service on domestic flights using technology from rival AeroMobile Ltd., a joint venture of ARINC Inc. and Telenor ASA.
JetBlue Airways Corp. started tests this month of limited e-mail and messaging services in the United States, using a wireless Wi-Fi system rather than an onboard cellular network, which is not yet approved by U.S. regulators.
Air France said it would await the results of the trial before deciding whether to equip the rest of its fleet.
Passengers will be billed directly by their cellular provider at rates officials say are comparable to international roaming.
OnAir plans to service European no-frills carrier Ryanair Ltd., British Midland Airways Ltd. and Portugal's TAP by mid-2008. Later customers include Royal Jordanian Airlines, China's Shenzhen Airlines and India's Kingfisher Airlines Ltd.