Cell Phones on Airlines: Coming Soon to a Seat Near You?

More international airlines offer in-flight cell service. Will U.S. follow?

ByKi Mae Heussner
July 09, 2010, 11:35 AM

July 12, 2010— -- You're late for your flight. Traffic is terrible. You fight your way through security. By the time you sit down on the plane, all you want to do is wrap yourself in peace and quiet.

And then you hear it: the guy in the seat next to you, yakking away on a cell phone. This is how you're going to fly across the Pacific?

In one extreme case, records show that last October, a talkative passenger on Emirates Airlines yammered on for 65 minutes during a flight from Dubai to Accra, Ghana.

The data, released by Aeromobile, the U.K. company that provides mobile connectivity for Emirates, also showed that one frequent flyer was also a frequent caller, making a series of phone calls totalling 2.5 hours on each of the seven flights the person took on Emirates.

More and more international airlines offer in-flight cell services, and it might not be long before calls are routine on domestic U.S. flights as well.

Cathay Pacific has now announced that, starting in 2012, it will equip its entire fleet with an onboard cell phone system for GSM mobile phones. Virgin Atlantic announced a similar plan last month for its newest planes.

Here in the U.S. the Federal Communications Commission prevents domestic carriers from following their international peers, and legislation is pending in Congress to ban in-flight cell-phone conversations. But some in the industry say it's only a matter of time before American airlines start bringing voice communication to the friendly skies.

"[Cathay's announcement] is definitely paving the road for American air carriers to have cell phones on carriers," said Kate Hanni, executive director for Flyers Rights, a non-profit airline consumer organization that supports the use of cell phones in flight.

In 2008, Emirates Airlines became the first to let passengers make cell phone calls on select flights. Ryanair, Malaysia Airlines, British Airways and V Australia have all either done the same or considered it.

Hanni says it's not a bad thing -- that it's very different from mobile phone use on the ground.

Callum Grieve, 43, who commutes by train from Larchmont, N.Y., to New York City, said that "without exception" he hears cell phone chatter on his evening ride home.

"It's intrusive," he said. "You're tired and you want to settle in and … read a book and it's disrespectful."

Could he picture the same thing on a 12-hour flight, in close quarters?

"At least on the train, worst-case scenario, you can get up and move to another compartment. On a plane, I don't see that as a possibility," he said.

But Hanni said that in-flight cell phone calls tend to be shorter and, from her experience, more discrete.

"The bandwidth for cell phone use on aircraft is so narrow that at any one time you couldn't have more than five people talking," she said, adding that the cost of international roaming is so expensive that people tend to use the phone only for short, essential calls.

A Cathay Pacific spokeswoman told ABCNews.com the airline intends to introduce "etiquette" guidelines.

"[We plan] to disable voice on night-time portions of flights. We will also retain complete control over whether or not to offer voice calls," said Cathay's Elin Wong in an e-mail.

Cathay said that since being connected is now "an expected part of everyday life," it wants to give customers that option while they're 37,000 feet up in the air. Wong said passengers would be charged international roaming rates -- which can add up quickly -- and Cathay's system will be able to handle 24 calls per plane at a given time.

Lufthansa Airlines spokesman Martin Riecken said that although his company plans to offer passengers Internet access by the end of the year, it decided against in-flight voice services after it surveyed customers.

"They clearly said, 'Please, we don't want phone or voice communication on planes,'" he said. "They enjoyed the quiet period where they're simply off the ground for a couple of hours. In today's hectic times, our time is something valuable."

He also said customers expressed real concern about the noise and intrusion of having to hear other people's phone calls in such close quarters.

In March, Flight International editor Mary Kirby published statistics from Aeromobile. She found that though it took 10 months to reach 100,000 passengers, it only took 10 more months to reach 1 million, indicating that customer acceptance is on the rise.

Cell Phone Calls on Airlines? Coming Soon, Maybe, on Your Flight Home

Is the same happening in the U.S.? A 2007 study by the Department of Transportation found that about 40 percent of Americans said passengers should definitely or probably not be allowed to use cell phones if there were no aircraft interference issues. About 45 percent were in favor; 15 percent were undecided.

Some industry observers expect that as more time passes and Americans become even more accustomed to staying electronically connected, public opposition to cell phones on planes would wane.

"A few years ago, the bet would have been that the U.S. industry would not adopt [or] adapt to the idea of allowing cell phones on airplanes," said Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of InsideFlyer magazine. Fears that terrorists would use cell phones to coordinate attacks sidetracked the conversation, he said.

But gradually, Petersen says, younger, tech-savvy fliers are changing the debate. Airlines may take steps to keep long-winded talkers from bothering their seatmates, but people will adapt.

"We will see this in U.S. airplanes in the near future," he said.

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