Mobile calls to be allowed on flights

Jennifer Bradly looks ahead to the imminent invasion of the mobile phone onto commercial airlines and explores whether the opportunity to chat from above the clouds is cause for celebration or simply further irritation

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14 May 2008

Aeroplanes may sometimes offer questionable choices in in-flight movies and unappealing, flavour-free meals, but they are one of the few remaining havens where you can escape the irritating ring tones, bleeping buttons and one-sided conversations that go hand-in-hand with mobile phones.

Travellers who relish the final phone-free zone should make the most of their journeys until the middle of this year, though, as that is when everything is set to change. Airlines at either end of the price spectrum, Ryanair and Emirates, have recently made an announcement that could alter the face of business travel: they intend to introduce new technology which will enable passengers to use their mobile phones, PDAs, laptop PCs and Blackberries while in flight.

Rather than resorting to the expensive fixed telephones that are currently available on some planes, people will be able to use their own handset for a charge to their normal bill. Operators say that making a call in the air will be charged at roaming rates, just as if you were abroad.

There are two reasons why mobile phone use has always been banned on aeroplanes until now. There is a chance that phone signals could obstruct avionics equipment and interfere with the two-way radios used by pilots. In addition, the lesser-known reason is that calling from a mobile as you travel at over 600 miles per hour at more than 20,000 feet in the air causes havoc to the networks on the ground. The antennae’s limited range means that in-flight calls must flick from base station to base station as the handset hurtles above them. The new technology deals with these hurdles by enabling the phones to operate at their minimum power level and introducing a hub which is attached to the plane’s fuselage that sends phone calls and texts to the networks on the ground via a satellite.

Budget airline Ryanair announced last August that it has made a deal with onboard passenger communications provider OnAir to fit its entire fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft with the new, lightweight technology. Subject to regulatory approval, 50 planes will be fitted with the equipment from mid-2007, with the remainder of the 200-strong fleet receiving installations from early 2008 onwards – making it the first European airline to offer such a service.

Of course, if the scheme takes off, it has the potential to be a money-spinner for the cut-price carrier, which will receive commission from OnAir on call revenues generated by its passengers. It fits the company’s busy, price-driven, no-nonsense image, too. Ryanair’s outspoken chief executive, Michael O’Leary, dismissed communication industry regulator Ofcom’s report that warned that allowing calls to be made and received on flights could lead to “increased agitation” among passengers. He was reported as saying: “The focus of the Ofcom report was long-haul flights, with interrupting people at 3am. Onboard Ryanair flights we don’t allow anybody to sleep as we are too busy selling them products. If you want a quiet flight, use another airline.”

The company will also be using the technology to further develop its in-flight entertainment, with a website – to be accessed either by a passenger’s own mobile phone or via a laptop computer distributed by cabin staff – enabling people to play a range of games as they fly, including bingo and black jack. “You have a lot of people on a flight that are fairly bored and they will want to get involved in this sort of activity. We hope we can make millions upon millions!” said Mr O’Leary.

Dubai-based airline Emirates, which boasts a fleet of 100 wide-body aircraft that fly to more than 80 cities worldwide, has adopted a rather different approach for its system, launching on board one of its Boeing 777s. Pre-empting a possible customer backlash against the prospect of being stuck next to a passenger yapping on the phone for the duration of a long-haul flight, it has been keen to underline the “discreet” nature of the service.

Using equipment developed by in-flight mobile service provider AeroMobile, Emirates’ $27m investment will be controlled by the cabin crew who can prevent voice calls at certain times, such as during night flights; information videos will encourage passengers to switch their phones to silent or vibrate modes; and the phones may only be used at cruise altitude.

Despite Emirates’ efforts to stress how non-invasive the service will be, the concept has not been welcomed with open arms by every frequent flyer. A live BBC Breakfast broadcast that discussed the development in August 2006 received just two emails from viewers supporting the idea during the entire course of the programme. Many passengers are less than keen on being subjected to hearing other people’s telephone conversations and ringtones, especially on long-haul flights, and others are more concerned about the potential security risks – mobile phones were temporarily banned from cabins following the Heathrow bomb scare of summer 2006 – although aviation security experts have said that the threat is minimal if the devices are screened properly at check-in.

There are clear advantages to the technology, though. Business travellers will be able to stay in touch with their office while in the air, by phone or by email. The plane could become an extension of the desk and online work could be carried out during the journey. Delays and estimated arrival times could be reported to colleagues and clients, and meetings could be re-scheduled quickly and easily. And, of course, for holidaymakers, it could be a convenient means of keeping in touch with family and friends.

The two pioneering airlines are being watched closely by the rest of the aviation world, which is preparing to follow their lead should it prove a success, with both Bmi and Air France planning to trial OnAir’s system this spring. Whether the consumer embraces or rejects the opportunity remains to be seen. It seems that US regulators, however, are yet to be convinced of its benefits, so internal flights in America could soon be the sole bastion of travel tranquility.