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November 13, 2008

Why WiFi But No Cell Calls Aloft?

by Barbara S. Peterson

Virgin America is the latest airline to make it official: The company rolls out WiFi capability on November 22, and claims it will be the first airline to have Internet access fleet-wide by the second quarter of next year. Of course, as a smaller airline with about two dozen planes, Virgin has an easier time of it than, say, American. Note: American has already been testing the service on certain flights, namely New York to San Francisco, LA, and Miami.  And Delta has promised to bring WiFi to the majority of its passengers within a year. (Given that it's also in the middle of a mega-merger with Northwest, don't be surprised if Delta's timetable slips.)   

This is good news, no?  For a fairly nominal fee (around $13) you can e-mail, surf the Web, and instant message from your airplane seat--you can do everything, in fact, except make a phone call.

So much has been made about the new WiFi deals that one tiny fact seems to be lost: Not long ago, you were able to phone home from 35,000 feet using the seatback "airfone" service that has now been ripped out to make way for WiFi access. Originally, though, that freed-up bandwidth was supposed to go towards cell phone use. Aircell, the company licensed to use that space, was formed in part to provide such services to private plane operators--who use it today. (The commercial airline service Aircell offers operates under the brand name Gogo.)

Federal policy requires that airlines block in-flight calls, but concerns about cell phone use threatening the safety of planes have long been resolved. At altitudes of more than 10,000 feet, there is no threat of interference with the jet's avionics. So what's the objection to trying, at least, to find out how it would work in practice? (Skype and VoIP are disabled, so don't even try it.)

I know, I know, the prospect of hundreds of passengers simultaneously screeching "CAN YOU HEAR ME?" into their devices is worrisome, but it doesn't have to be that way. For one, the service could be priced high enough to discourage gabby callers. Meanwhile, those of us who might want to take a few seconds to alert a family member waiting at the airport that we're running two hours late, for example (which I recall doing often enough when the seatback phones were available), can do so.

The other reason I am skeptical of these nightmare scenarios is that we already have some experience with how this might work. Several European airlines are testing mobile phone use, as is Emirates on its shorter flights out of Dubai, and it's going just dandy. So why won't we even begin to consider it here? Are Europeans really that much better behaved? I would love to hear how you feel about this issue.

Further reading:
* A list of Gogo-supported devices
* Ryan Air launches mobile phone service (ABC News)
* American Airlines rolls out the WiFi
* American previews WiFi, but Skype gets blocked
* On the Fly: The airline industry

Comments

While I agree that's it's pretty lame that there's no phone available in-flight, the introduction of in-flight wi-fi is a welcome trade off. Besides, e-mail, im, and sms are more than adequate communication options to voice. Good post!

You can't be serious. Cellphone lunacy in flight as well as everywhere else on earth? Say it isn't so.

Not sure I even miss not being able to talk on my phone while on a flight. For those of us who have families and travel for business, flight time is about the only time we can either read or get some rest. I imagine that moment when your flight attendant says it's o.k. to unfasten your seat belts. Everyone grabs their phones - "I'm here." Not to mention the "blue-tooth" people with the bits sticking out of their ears, repeating the word "home" or "office" repeatedly.
Uh-noi-ing.

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