Roger Flessing was on an American Airlines flight to Seattle recently when he began speaking with his son on his iPhone.
Unsure of how his action might be received by others, the Tacoma resident says he spoke discreetly. But soon, he says, flight attendants were leaning over, asking for a demonstration on how to make calls on their mobile phones. "They were saying, 'Wow this is great. We have to check our schedule, and we couldn't do that before,' " says Flessing, who flies often for his job as a communications executive for the non-profit relief organization World Vision.
Flessing wasn't making a conventional cellphone call. He was using Truphone, which allows smartphones to use wireless, or Wi-Fi, connections to make calls. The technology is known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP. Flessing also booted his laptop and videoconferenced with his brother using Skype, another VoIP application. He turned his computer to face the window so his brother could see the clouds. "My brother says, "How are you doing this?' "
It's a question that domestic airlines will have to answer with more clarity if they plan — as they say they do — to block phone calls during flight now that Wi-Fi is accessible on about 600 planes in the USA and passengers can talk online as Flessing did.
It's a controversial issue that's triggering fierce debate among travelers, airlines and regulators. Federal regulations prohibit in-flight cellphone use — but not Internet-based phone calls — lest they interfere with flight operations and create congestion in ground cell towers. A bill in Congress seeks a similar ban on all in-flight voice communications by passengers.
It's all the more controversial because airlines in Europe, Asia and the Middle East allow calls and have even taken it a step further by introducing pay-by-minute cellphone service using satellites.
Americans are split about in-flight mobile phones, a survey by the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics found. About 45% said cellphones should be banned on aircraft. About 40% said they should definitely or probably be allowed if they don't pose a safety threat, according to the survey, which queried about 1,000 households.
A chief concern is the in-cabin noise level. Some fear that people may carry on long conversations on their cellphones. And people generally talk louder on cellphones because they can't hear their own voices — unlike on landlines, which have a device that amplifies your voice and replays it through your earpiece.
Although in-flight Internet is provided by third-party vendors, U.S. airlines make their own decisions on Wi-Fi phone use.
Currently, two companies in the USA offer in-flight Internet service: Chicago-based Aircell and California-based Row 44. Both companies say the airlines have asked that Internet-based phone calls be blocked.
But Flessing isn't alone in discovering that this ban is hardly ironclad. Many fliers have blogged about their experience of Internet phone calls, even as airlines say they have the technology to block it.
"(Passengers using VoIP calls) is such a minute percent of people," says John Happ of Aircell. "It has a particular footprint. We can snuff it out."
Still, Happ says it's a "cat-and-mouse" game that entails trying to keep up with new software makers and passengers who can bypass the ban. "It's an ongoing process."
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."
TELL US: What is the best reason for allowing cellphone calls while in flight?