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International airline to allow cell phone chatter on planes

Story Highlights

• Emirates will become first airline to allow cell phones
• Survey says most business travelers prefer silence
• More airlines expected to enable Internet access
By Grace Wong
Special to CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- From cell phone use to high-speed Internet access, the connected life is spreading to the skies.

In January, Emirates airline plans to launch mobile phone usage in its planes, making it the first airline to allow passengers to make cell phone calls on its flights.

And Australian carrier Qantas plans to start evaluating technology that lets fliers use their cell phones and PDAs during flight early next year.

Fliers have long been able to keep in touch with those on the ground by using phones built into the backs of airplane seats. But the costs of those seatback phones can be upwards of $10 a minute, plus a connection fee.

In contrast, the cost of calls made in-flight on Emirates will be in line with international roaming rates, the airline said. Those rates vary by mobile carrier and by location but can be as low as $1 to $2 a minute.

But while some upscale, long-haul airlines are installing equipment onboard that will allow for cell phone use, it may be a while before the service makes its way to the U.S.

U.S. carriers don't allow in-flight cell phone calls, although the FAA is reviewing the safety concerns associated with mobile calls made in the air.

The regulatory agency has asked a committee to conduct a study looking at whether portable electronic devices like cell phones interfere with aircraft navigation systems. Findings of the study are due at the end of December.

Furthermore, airlines in the troubled U.S. industry are struggling to survive and new in-flight services may not attract new customers, analysts say.

"There's no economic incentive for them to do it. Domestically they're not going to bring anyone extra on to their airplane with that service," said airline industry consultant Michael Boyd.

A majority of business travelers (61 percent) oppose the idea of being able to use their phones in the sky, according to a global survey conducted by travel management company Carlson Wagonlit Travel early this year.

But if the technology is there, the service will eventually make its way to the skies, said Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch.

"Whether people like it or not, in-flight cell phone use is going to become a reality," he said.

Airlines are also exploring less intrusive ways to keep in-step with the increasingly connected lifestyle of their passengers.

According to the annual Airline IT Trends Survey conducted by industry group SITA and Airline Business magazine, 59 percent of airlines plan to offer in-flight Internet access by the end of 2008.

One company helping U.S. carriers make that leap is Louisville, Colorado-based AirCell, which won a license earlier this year to provide exclusive broadband connectivity to U.S. airlines starting in 2008.

Companies have attempted to tap the market for in-flight Internet access before -- the most notable being Boeing, which launched its Connexion high-speed broadband business in 2000.

Several international airlines installed Boeing's system, which cost travelers from $10 to $30 a flight. But in August, Boeing said it was closing Connexion because the market for it hadn't materialized as expected.

AirCell CEO Jack Blumenstein said Connexion's fate doesn't spell doom for the future of onboard Internet access.

For one, Boeing's system was expensive -- it cost about $1 million to outfit a single plane. In contrast, airlines can equip a plane with AirCell's technology for about one-tenth of that cost, Blumenstein said.

Expedia's McGinnis thinks people will take advantage of onboard Internet access as long as it is cheap enough.

"If you can sit there and stream movies and read your email or do research -- it's absolutely something people would use," he said.

Blumenstein said the price of in-flight Internet access offered by AirCell should be comparable to or slightly higher than what users pay to access "hot spots" on the ground.

Accessing a Wi-Fi hot spot at a cafe can run anywhere from $8 for a single day of access to around $30 a month for unlimited access, depending on the service operator.


Emirates expects to become the first airline to allow cell phone usage when it does so in January.

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