One of the most frequent complaints voiced by air travelers over the past decade or so has been having to comply with the instruction to "make sure your mobile phones are turned off" before liftoff. Inquiring travelers want to know -- how can my cute little Motorola (NYSE:MOT) in its pastel pleather phone jacket pose a threat to this big ol' Delta (NYSE:DAL) 767?

Good question. And right this moment, European aircraft maker Airbus is working on the answer. According to a story published by Reuters Wednesday, Europe's answer to Boeing (NYSE:BA) is currently testing equipment that will enable passengers to use their cell phones on board flights without affecting the planes' navigation systems. Airbus hopes to have the kinks worked out of its new system by 2006 so that passengers will be able to safely use wireless phones, PDAs, and whatever other electronic gizmos are on the market by then in flight.

The plan is to route all wireless devices' signals to a single base station onboard the plane, which will direct the signals first upward to bounce off of a Globalstar satellite, then down to base stations on Earth. Ideally, Airbus wants passengers' calls to be billable directly by their service provider, be it SBC Communications (NYSE:SBC) and BellSouth (NYSE:BLS) joint venture Cingular in the U.S., NTT DoCoMo (NYSE:DCM) in Japan -- or anyone else in between.

Airbus' efforts appear to be aimed at one-upping Boeing's onboard Internet service, which got off the ground back in July (as described by fellow Fool Brian Gorman in this aerodynamic article.) By enabling passengers to use both wireless Internet devices and mobile phones in flight, Airbus should be able to match, and surpass, its rival's offerings soon. Unless Boeing moves quickly, it will be forced to play catchup come 2006.

Boeing and Airbus have a long history of rivalry. Read all about it in:

Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.