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Foreign Airlines Ahead of U.S. on Cellphone Use

Joe Sharkey|The New York Times
Tuesday, 29 Sep 2009 | 11:24 AM ET

Cellphone use on airplanes, it would seem, is on extended hold in the United States.

The national union representing flight attendants wants Congress to ban in-flight phone calls, and survey after survey of airline passengers shows strong opposition to allowing cellphones on planes.

Using cellphone in Airplane
Photo: istock
Using cellphone in Airplane

So while domestic airlines rush to wire their cabins to provide in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity, there is no indication whether, or when, passengers in the United States might be able to make a cellphone call at 37,000 feet.

In much of the rest of the world, meanwhile, passengers on various foreign airlines are already routinely using cellphones and other personal wireless devices to make and receive calls in flight. Industry officials say cellphones can be used on more than 15,000 flights a month.

Despite dire warnings that cellphone use on planes would unleash social turbulence and possibly even violence in the cabin, there have been remarkably few complaints so far, industry executives and passengers say.

“I use mine often when I’m on a plane to communicate with my office, especially during long flights,” said Nakhle el Hajj, a news director at Al Arabiya News who is based in Dubai and travels frequently in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Mr. Hajj usually flies on the Dubai-based international carrier Emirates, which offers in-flight cellphone roaming service on 350 flights a week. He said that he spoke in a low voice when using his cellphone on a plane “to make sure I am not bothering people around me.”

The Federal Communications Commission in Washington currently prohibits in-flight cellphone use on planes, partly because of some unresolved questions about the potential for interference with aircraft navigation equipment, but mostly because of phone industry concerns that airborne cell signals radiate widely, randomly contacting different ground stations. That would create interference between systems and cause logistical problems for things like billing.

But on some foreign airlines, those technical issues have been resolved. On-board equipment regulates the signals by routing them via satellite to the correct point on the ground. Passengers with standard international roaming service can make or receive calls or text messages just as they would on the ground. They are billed as usual by their cellphone providers.

On Emirates, the service is provided by AeroMobile, a subsidiary of the communications company Telenor. AeroMobile, whose clients include Qantas and Malaysia Airlines, says the first authorized in-flight cellphone call on a commercial aircraft was made, using its system, on an Emirates flight in March 2008.

Another company, OnAir, provides service for many planes in the fleets of Royal Jordanian Airlines and the European discount carrier Ryanair. Agreements are in place for outfitting planes this year or next on other carriers, including Kingfisher Airlines, Qatar Airways, Hong Kong Airlines and British Airways’ new business-class service between London City and Kennedy International airports, which starts Tuesday.

OnAir, which also provides separate in-flight Wi-Fi connections at a fee, says that it will be offering its cellphone service on four continents in 2010.

Both OnAir and AeroMobile want to sign up American carriers but are concerned that Congress may ban in-flight cellphone use because of the noise issue. Even short of Congressional action, airlines are wary of installing expensive systems and then facing an adverse public reaction.

“It’s very emotional in the United States,” said Benoit Debains, the chief executive of OnAir. He insisted that the anxiety was overblown. For one thing, he and other industry executives said, standard cabin noise covers up much conversational noise, yet people with cellphones pressed to their ears in that environment somehow do not feel the need to speak louder to compensate.

“I remember on the first flight we did, we asked one guy, ‘What do you think about using the phone for voice in the cabin?’ He said he was against it. But we said, ‘You know, the guy across from you has been using his phone for the last five minutes.’ ”

In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission elicited howls of protest when it proposed removing the ban on in-flight cellphone use on planes equipped with systems like those used by OnAir and AeroMobile.

The resistance remains. Legislation called the Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace Act (the Hang Up Act) is pending in Congress to ban voice communications on wireless devices on commercial flights. More recently, the largest flight attendants’ union, the Association of Flight Attendants, urged Congress to ban in-flight cellphone calls as a threat to the “ability to maintain order in the cabin and to safely execute an emergency evacuation if necessary.”

Still, the horse is out of the barn — at least on four continents. Emirates recently logged its hundred-thousandth in-flight call, said Patrick Brannelly, the vice president for in-flight passenger communications.

Airlines that offer the service — which typically costs only what passengers are billed by their own mobile providers — usually restrict availability on nighttime flights when many people are sleeping.

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“Before we launched this, we thought the social etiquette thing, the annoyance of other passengers, was going to be a problem,” Mr. Brannelly said. “We play a video at the beginning of the flight which asks people to be respectful of each other and to avoid speaking loudly, but we have been very surprised by the lack of negative comments.”

Emirates executives have even heard from skeptical pilots and flight attendants who mistakenly believed “the system was on but nobody was using it” on a particular flight, he said. “And I was able to go back to them and say, well 63 people had their phones on, and there were 22 phone calls and 68 messages.”

He added, “They were thinking it must be broken because they don’t hear anybody using it.”

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