Handys on Board

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Please Turn Your Cell Phones on Silent”

News | Ana Valjak, Alexander Litschka | May 2008

Most travelers have heard the words of welcome over the airline loudspeaker so often, they can recite it from memory:  "Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the flight Airbus A318. Please fasten your seat belt and listen to the safety instructions ….."

So that a change can be startling. As it was to François Germain on an Air France flight last week from Vienna to Paris. Cell phones and other electronic devices are prohibited during the take off… However after the take off you may use electronic devices as well as your mobile phone.

What? As soon as they were airborne, he pulled his phone out of his briefcase, switched it back on, and punched in the number of his office.

"I told my assistant I was speaking from an airplane," said Germain, still amused by the novelty. The last sanctuary from permanent connectedness was gone.

But for those who find it hard to unplug from your "electronic head extension" - the mobile phone – this is good news: From now on some Airlines, you can turn that Blackberry back on.

Last month, Emirates Airline became the first to permit in-flight mobile services. And on Apr. 2, Air France started offering mobile calls on its jets on a trial base. BMI Britain and TAP Portugal have similar plans to do so over the next few months.

Relatively modest data calls, like mobile e-mail and messaging, have been available for some time on several airlines, including Emirates, Qantas, JetBlue, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines. But while engineers are trying to push the boundaries to make the in-flight cell experience as comfortable as possible, a number of obstacles are still to be overcome.

The technology, which lets users make as well as receive calls through a satellite-linked, on-board base station, delivers unreliable quality that keeps most in-flight calls short and sharp. Some passengers interviewed for this article reported however that, in spite of aircraft noise, they were able to make voice calls of acceptable quality for brief conversations.

So far, on the Vienna-Paris flight only six passengers are able to receive a signal at the same time, although that is to be expanded to 12 in the near future. The technology being tested by Air France links passenger phones to an onboard network connected to the ground via satellite. The OnAir system being tested by Air France – with transmission levels low enough to avoid affecting the safety of aircraft equipment – uses an onboard base station in the plane called a pico cell. The base station routes phone traffic to and from the plane to a satellite that beams down to mobile networks on the ground. To be able to phone in-flight with OnAir, passengers must have a GSM phone and a roaming service that supports international calls.

With all the novelty, not everybody shares the excitement. Flight attendants on the Vienna-Paris flight said few passengers had reached for their phones, although a few began experimenting with text messaging, which apparently worked quite well.

However in a series of informal interviews with travelers at the Vienna International Airport, many seemed unhappy with the prospect of phone ringing during flights. Most of them hadn’t heard about the option and while others, by contrast, reacted with annoyance at having packed their phones in their checked their luggage where they wouldn’t be able to get them back until after the flight.

However several seemed genuinely disturbed by the news. One elderly lady flying with Air France to Paris and then on to California was very upset.

"It is a very long flight and I always try to get my sleep," she said. "But if phones go on ringing and people are chatting all the time, I will never be able to fall asleep."

A businessman who seemed to have the cell phone permanently attached to his ear, did find two minutes to talk and seemed equally upset.

"The flight is the only stress relief time I get," he admitted, "the only time I can use without interruption to go over my meeting plans. Now I won’t even be able to do that. My phone will ring all the time," he said and excused himself as his phone had started ringing again and he had to take the call.

A teenager I approached next, however, seemed very excited by the news.

"Now I can be in contact with my boyfriend the whole time," she said. Eight hours apparently seems like a lifetime when you are young.

"I think this is great," said a middle-aged man. "This way I can do my work while traveling. My time will simply pass faster now when I am allowed to go online."

Over all, most seemed to think it was not really necessary.

"Its ok, I suppose," said one woman. "Now I can send an sms or tell my husband if we are delayed. But I don’t think it is really that important."

Another middle-aged woman seemed very confused and a little uneasy when she heard the news.

"Won’t it interfere with the navigation system? What if something goes wrong because of cell phones?" she asked nervously. "Do we really want to be guinea pigs for this project? I mean if I can restrain myself from smoking, because it is bad for me, why can’t phone addicts do the same?" At which she excused herself and headed off towards the smoking area.

Air France claims that passengers were asked to fill out a questionnaire to see of they would mind the disturbance of cell phones. The most positive reaction was to being able to use short message services, the airline reported, but admitted it was too early to make a full analysis. A spokeswoman for the airline said it would decide in the early summer whether to continue with the service.

Lufthansa, Europe’s second-largest carrier, has on the other hand, decided not to offer the service, after travelers made their distaste clear.

"Our passengers have told us that they don’t want to have the noise on board," said Thomas Jachnow, spokesman for Lufthansa based in Frankfurt.

There may be no right or wrong in this story. Cell phones are becoming basic to life in the modern world, as important to some as food and water, and just another inevitable step in technological evolution.

Other articles from this issue