May 16, 2012— -- The debate over using cell phones in flight is about to ignite once again. But this time, it's not about safety.
Virgin Atlantic announced it will become the first British airline to provide passengers with a service to make and receive phone calls in the air. The service is available on the Airbus A330-300s, the airline's new aircraft. It's aimed at business travellers, but is available throughout the aircraft in all cabins.
The service, called AeroMobile, is available for customers with O2 and Vodafone network providers only.
The service "is intended for use in exceptional situations, when passengers need to send an SMS, make a quick call, or access an email on a Blackberry," said the airline. It is also limited to six users at one time.
What's not clear is what constitutes an "exceptional circumstance." Also, what exactly is a "quick" call?
And if more than six people need to make a "quick call" under "exceptional circumstances," who decides which six people get to do so?
Air rage anyone?
"The airline cabin is the last refuge for those who wish to be out of earshot of someone yelling into a mobile phone, so I imagine that many passengers are not going to welcome this," said George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com. "I can just imagine sitting next to someone gabbing about nothing at the top of his or her lungs for hours on end. I predict a number of mobile phones will be snatched out of hands and stomped on. Just what we need, with all the other in-flight hostilities that passengers deal with."
While Virgin Atlantic may indeed be the first airline to offer this service, passengers have already demonstrated that it is possible to make in-flight calls from their cell phones without special technology. Last week, the CEO of a company that developed an app that uses VoIP was escorted off a Delta flight for making a call in-flight.
And while most passengers haven't gone so far as to actually attempt a call, many are guilty of leaving their phone on during flight, whether intentionally or not. In a recent Airfarewatchdog poll, 24 percent of respondents said they didn't always comply after the cabin door has been closed and a flight attendant has asked for electronic devices to be turned off.
The FAA was reportedly taking a "fresh look" at its gadget policy in March and said, "As with any regulation, safety is always our top priority, and no changes will be made until we are certain they will not impact safety and security. For some time, the FAA's rules have permitted an airline to allow passenger use of PEDs if the airline demonstrates the devices will not interfere with aircraft avionics. The FAA is exploring ways to bring together all of the key stakeholders involved, but, ultimately, testing is the responsibility of each airline."
At the time, John Nance, aviation consultant and retired commercial airline pilot, said to ABC News: "There's absolutely no evidence that any electronics aboard airlines interfere or have interfered in any way."
But for now, you better book with Virgin Atlantic if you have an "exceptional circumstance." Or if you just can't stop yapping.