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Airline's interest in mile-high Wi-Fi dives

In-flight broadband still too expensive and immature, British Airways CEO says.

British Airways has backed off from plans to install in-flight Wi-Fi broadband connectivity on its planes, claiming the technology is still too immature and expensive.

Interviewed at BA's annual internal IT fair at the company's Waterside headquarters, CIO Paul Coby said in-flight connectivity will have a role in the future, but said he is happy to wait and see how Lufthansa's Wi-Fi effort goes first.

Coby said the technology is likely to become mainstream only when the aircraft manufacturers include it in new planes, because it is too expensive to upgrade onto an existing fleet.

"If you have to put your aircraft on the ground for 10 days, it is going to be very expensive," he said. "It is up to Airbus and Boeing to integrate entertainment into the planes."

Despite that view, Coby said there is an interesting business model for future in-flight connectivity and entertainment.

"People are on board for 12 hours who want to consume entertainment, buy things and be connected. There is going to be a viable model here, but it is not BA's job to define it."

There are currently two models for broadband in the air. Boeing has developed the Connexion by Boeing service, which is being used by Lufthansa (ironically on its Airbus planes), and costs passengers around $30 for unlimited high-speed surfing for the duration of the flight. On the other side is Tenzing, the Airbus-backed service, which is quicker to fit--and therefore less expensive for airlines--but offers lower connection speeds.

Coby said BA will wait until the technology has matured and been approved by the airline industry regulators, and then will only install it as part of the normal retrofit and replacement cycle of its aircraft fleet.

"It will come in, but at the moment it's a nice-to-have."

In the meantime, Coby said he is happy to continue with initiatives such as BA's in-flight SMS service, accessible from the in-seat phones. He also hinted that airline industry regulators are considering allowing the use of mobile phones on planes.

"Telecoms and integration companies are talking to the regulators about that," he said.

But he warned that not only would many passengers find widespread cellular use by surrounding passengers too intrusive, but there would need to be clear evidence from the appropriate experts that the use of mobile phones on planes is safe after airlines have spent years telling passengers such devices can interfere with navigation systems.

Andy McCue of Silicon.com reported from London.

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