Mobile phones taking wing, but not yet in the US
British airline Virgin Atlantic (VA) recently announced that it would begin allowing passengers to use their mobile phones on some transatlantic flights, a move that stands in stark contrast to many other carriers’ policies, particularly US-based airlines.
VA reports that it will first outfit some of its Airbus A330 jets with the needed technology, followed by Boeing 747’s; 13 planes will be equipped by year’s end. The system works by installing a small cellular base station, called a picocell, in the cabin ceiling. Passengers’ mobiles pick up the picocell’s connection, which in turn relays calls to orbiting satellites and back down to stations on the ground.
Because the picocell is so close to the passengers, their mobiles have to emit much weaker signals to connect to it, in contrast to connecting to a faraway tower on the ground. And the weaker the signal, many contend, the better.
But the service isn’t without its catches. VA has partnered with London-based AeroMobile, which has also licensed its in-flight cellular technology to nine other airlines across Europe, Oceania, Asia and the Middle East. Passengers wishing to use their mobiles in flight will need to ensure that their mobile carrier supports AeroMobile, and there are only a few supported carriers in each of those regions.
VA passengers on equipped planes will need to fork over £1 (about €1.25/US$1.60) per minute of talk time, or 20 pence (about €0.25/US$0.30) per sent text message. Additionally, only six passengers per flight will be able to be on their mobiles simultaneously, and those on US-bound jets will have to stop chatting and texting once the plane comes within 250 miles (about 400 km) of American airspace.
A US-based company called Aircell, which also develops and markets the in-flight wifi system Gogo, has developed an Android-compatible wireless handset for use in business jets. It relies on the same technology that AeroMobile installs in commercial planes, but there are no current plans to bring it to US airlines.
This is because US authorities responsible for banning the use of mobiles on American carriers—most notably the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — continue to refuse to relax restrictions. They point to a concern that cellular signals may disrupt an aircraft’s communication and navigation equipment. However, several independent studies—including one conducted by US investigative news program 20/20—have challenged that assumption. The FCC conducted its own research in consideration of overturning the ban, but decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
In addition, the public (at least the American one) seems to be evenly divided on the issue. A 2008 poll conducted by the US Department of Transportation found that over half the public was opposed to allowing in-flight calls. Interestingly enough, these numbers still hold for recently conducted, informal polls.
Share your thoughts: Would you use your mobile on a plane if you had the ability to do so? Would you be concerned about noise, cost, or some other factor? Do you think the FCC is overreacting to the possible dangers of in-flight mobile use?
Luke can be reached at luke.jensen1981(at)gmail.com