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In-flight phone-free zone may end


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Will the quiet in-flight no phone zone soon be a thing of the past?
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(CNN) -- The airplane cabin as a quiet haven away from ear splitting ring tones and annoying conversations may be about to change.

Now technology companies and aviation players are banding together to mount an assault on the final phone-free zone.

The impetus for change is fueled by a belief that some people cannot get along without using their mobile phone -- especially business travelers on long-haul flights.

The use of mobile phones and some other electronic devices has been prohibited on flights because of fears they interfere with a plane's navigation and communication.

However, the new mobile phone technology is less intrusive.

"There is a (better) safety factor because we are transmitting at such low power to a cell site right in the airplane," says Irwin Jacobs, CEO of wireless technology company Qualcomm.

The in-flight technology uses laptop-sized "picocells" on the aircraft that pick up onboard mobile phone calls and send them directly to the relevant orbiting satellites.

The components for the new technology are small and lightweight. Only a satellite antenna is visible on the outside of the aircraft.

In recent tests airplane maker Airbus and American Airlines teamed up with telecommunications firms to show that using mobile phones in-flight can work.

"It sounded just as if I was on the ground talking to someone next door," said one passenger who used a mobile phone in-flight.

In-flight mobile phone technology still needs U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) approval.

One non-profit aeronautics group is crafting guidelines to test the wireless technology so that it is safe to use in-flight.

"It is convenience versus safety. From an aviation point of view, safety will always be dominant. But the body of evidence is growing that there is a way to make this happen," says Dave Watrous of the U.S. Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA).

Passengers are already speaking up about what they would prefer.

With cell phones now banned in-flight, some passengers say they want to keep it that way, claiming it is annoying and intrusive.

"(There is) serenity in a cell phone-less flight," said one man.

"Sometimes it is nice to get away from the mobile phone. But it would be nice to have it for an emergency situation if I needed it," said one woman.

"I would endorse this whole-heartedly. I think in today's world of technology, we should have already been there," explained another traveller.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will have to be persuaded that making calls from high in the sky will not wreak havoc with cell systems on the ground.

If there are no problems, the prediction is that mobile phones could be used in aircraft by 2006.

-- CNN's Kathleen Koch contributed to this report


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