Airline to Make Cell Phone Calls Possible on Flights

Singapore airlines could allow calls as soon as January.

October 5, 2010, 1:26 PM

Oct. 5, 2010— -- On your next flight, you might hear the passenger sitting next to you say, "Can you hear me now?"

Singapore Airlines announced today that it will soon allow wireless connections -- for text messages, Blackberrys and perhaps cell phone calls -- on its medium- and long-haul flights.

The move comes as the airline announces a multi-million-dollar collaboration with in-flight connectivity provider OnAir to offer Wi-Fi Internet access and other services on its flights.

Details are still being worked out, but when the airline implements the system early next year, it could be the first carrier to allow passengers to make and receive voice calls on their personal cell phones. The airline is waiting to see how customers respond to the idea.

"Voice calls are a capability of the system and it's an option that we may open to customers in the future. At this point, a firm decision hasn't yet been made on that," said Singapore Airlines spokesman James Boyd. "There are a number of questions that will have to be explored as we continue to get feedback from our customers on how the system should be managed."

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No word yet on how much, if at all, the airline plans to charge passengers to make calls. One option the airline might explore: quiet zones or cell-phone only zones, much as Amtrak has "quiet cars" on its trains.

"It's going to be hell," said John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet. "People are going to be so tired from a long flight and want to sleep, and you're going to hear someone's annoying phone go off and then talking so loud, telling the person on the line everything."

DiScala, who travels around 150,000 miles and visits more than 20 countries each year, said he supports text messages and Internet access but not voice calls.

"It's just going to be chaos hearing all these different phones ring," he said. "There are so many people who don't have cell phone manners."

Cell Phones on Airplanes

Singapore Airlines flies some of the world's longest flights, including an 18-and-a-half-hour flight from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York to Singapore. That all-business class, 10,371-mile flight is the longest commercial trip in the world. The 100-seat plane is used mainly by corporate travelers.

"The reason we are exploring this is because our customers tell us that on ultra-long haul flights it's important that they have the option to be as connected or not connected as they choose to be," Boyd said.

Boyd said the system would be installed on 43 aircraft, a little less than half of the airline's fleet. The A380, A340-500 and Boeing 777-300ER planes serve the airline's medium- and long-haul routes.

Cell phone use on airplanes is prohibited in the United States by federal regulations. Boyd said the system would be configured to comply with those rules and guidelines. Use would be prohibited during takeoffs and landings.

Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare-search site and an columnist, said "the train for cell phones on commercial jets left the station a couple of years ago and is gaining speed."

He said if cell lobbyists "do their job correctly, it won't be long until we see these in the U.S."

Seaney said Wi-Fi is already coming to almost all commercial U.S. flights. One can make voice calls with a Wi-Fi signal connected to the Internet, although the airlines block popular sites such as Skype.

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