In-flight phone calls to become standard, say experts

Mobile connectivity is tipped to soon become an airline industry standard, allowing passengers to forgo their "seat phones" and make calls on their own cells.

Story highlights

  • Virgin Atlantic has introduced in-flight calls on transatlantic flights
  • New systems allow for mobile phones to be used on planes without affecting equipment
  • In-flight calling is still banned in the US, but some are tipping this to be overturned
  • Call charges are similar to international roaming rates

Switching off your cellphone during a flight will soon be a thing of the past, according to aviation experts, who are tipping in-flight mobile connectivity to become a standard feature of air travel.

Virgin Atlantic recently announced that passengers can make calls on their cellphones on the airline's Airbus A330 and Boeing 747 flying between London and New York. Call charges are similar to international roaming rates, and phones cannot be used during take off and landing.

But Virgin Atlantic isn't alone -- more than 100 other aircraft are currently equipped to allow calls to be made in the air.

The CEO of AeroMobile, which provides mobile connectivity to Emirates, Virgin Atlantic and Malaysian Airlines planes, said 1,000 aircraft would be fitted with the company's systems over the next three years. Lufthansa, Etihad, Turkish Airlines, Cathay Pacific, SAS and Gulf Air will all launch in-flight mobile offerings in coming months, he said.

"We believe this is going to be standard in most airlines," said Pal Bjordal, AeroMobile CEO. "You will have connectivity in the air in the same way you have connectivity on the ground."

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Its rival OnAir operates on 16 airlines, and says it will extend to 24 by the end of the year.

The AeroMobile system, which has been available on Emirates flights since 2008, allows for six calls to be made by passengers at any one time (soon to be upgraded to eight), and unlimited texts and data usage.

For years, airlines have banned the use of cellphones citing their interference with onboard equipment. But Aeromobile's technology involves installing a small mobile base station on board to manage signal strength, and ensure calls do not interfere with flight systems.

Bjordal said research suggested about 20 cellphones were inadvertently left switched on during any given flight, and claimed that the company's technology actually reduced the signal strength of those active cellphones.

"If you switch on a cellphone on board, and there's no network, it will gradually increase the power it's transmitting because it's trying to get hooked on a network which doesn't exist," he said. "With our system on board, those cellphones will emit much less power."

The service is proving popular with passengers, with one passenger on Virgin Atlantic's fledgling service reportedly having sent 80 text messages during a single flight.

Aviation analyst Vaughn Cordle of AirlineForecasts tipped mobile connectivity to become standard across the industry, and the price of access to drop.

"This is clearly what business travelers need. Many leisure passengers may not want to pay for it though," he said. "But the technology is there, and if the airlines can get the volume up, they can most likely get the price down."

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But the technology will not be coming to all regions, at least in the short term. Despite being a leader in in-flight Wi-Fi, the United States bans the use of mobiles on flights, requiring that phones are switched off once they enter U.S. airspace.

Mary Kirby, editor of Airline Passenger Experience magazine, said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was currently looking into the technology, and predicted the restrictions would be lifted in a matter of years.

"Once this technology is deemed safe by the FAA, they're going to have to join the rest of the world," she said. "Regulations are going to change whether people like it or not."

She said that despite the convenience of in-flight mobile connectivity, the impression she had gained from studies and social media reactions was that many Americans were opposed to calls being allowed on flights, because they were perceived as a nuisance.

But in the years that in-flight calling had been allowed in other regions, she knew of no instances of air rage connected to phone use -- something she attributed to airlines establishing good protocols around call etiquette.

"You can't legislate manners from a regulatory standpoint," she said. "Sooner or later, the arguments against mobile connectivity are going to fall away."

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