Frederick St. Amour, a business development executive at Row 44, says travelers making Internet phone calls "create competition for bandwidth" that could result in slower speed for other passengers. Airlines could even consider charging for Internet-based phone calls because the service demands extra bandwidth, he says.
Flessing says he experienced no trouble in using Skype during his flight and had no image interruption during the video call to his brother. But, "I think I may have been the only one using" Wi-Fi, he says.
Other countries aren't so prudish about in-flight cellphone use.
The Geneva-based firm OnAir and the London-based vendor AeroMobile now offer technology to several international airlines that uses satellites to beam voice transmission to ground cell towers.
Emirates became one of the first airlines to offer cellphone service when it installed AeroMobile's technology in March 2008. It's now available on about 50 Emirates aircraft, says Steve Double, an AeroMobile spokesman.
Malaysian Airlines is another customer testing it, and "about half a dozen other airlines" will announce the service in "the coming weeks," Double says. The service costs about $2 a minute, not including any out-of-country charges imposed by the user's wireless carrier.
OnAir has installed its equipment on about 55 aircraft operated by several carriers, including Ryanair, Kuwait-based Wataniya Airways and Royal Jordanian. Air France tested its system for several months but has no plans to continue it. Other airlines that have signed on with OnAir for future deployment include Air Asia, British Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, Kingfisher, Qatar Airways and TAM.
Row 44 says it will provide cellphone service to Norwegian Air Shuttle, a regional carrier in Europe, early next year.
The social and etiquette concerns that perplex Americans haven't been a major issue abroad, says OnAir CEO Benoit Debains. None of OnAir's client airlines imposes a time limit on conversations, but an average call lasts two minutes. "There is kind of an etiquette built up," he says.
Back in the USA, Flessing says he didn't think his fellow passengers were upset about his calls on his recent American flight. His seatmate, an off-duty flight attendant, was curious and encouraged him to test Skype. Other passengers on his row also "were peeking over" out of curiosity.
"I'm very cautious about that," he says. "I had my hand around my mouth. I used a video headset."
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