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February 05, 2009

Cell Phones on Transatlantic Flights? Yes, If You Don't Talk

by Barbara S. Peterson

The prospect of being able to turn on your cell phone high over the North Atlantic got a lot of people hopping this week. Hopping mad, that is: When British Airways announced it would permit business-class fliers to send text messages from their mobiles on flights between London and New York later this year, you'd think the airline had just come up with a new form of legalized torture.    

Messages popped up on Gadling saying that if BA welcomed texting, it would be just a matter of time before calls would be allowed, turning one of the world's last refuges from inane phone banter into a cacophonous den of claustrophobia. Some of the posts threatened never to fly BA again.

So let's, uh, hold the phone: British Airways states firmly that it will only permit texting and emailing aloft, just like airlines that now offer WiFi access have blocked Skype and other voice services. And BA will likely charge a hefty fee for the privilege, which would hopefully deter nonstop yakking if calling were ever allowed. Emirates, one of the few airlines that permits inflight cell calls, charges around $3 a minute. If people had to pay that kind of money to babble in the air, those wedged next to them might have a lot more peace.

For BA, the deal with communications provider OnAir (an Airbus joint venture) comes at a critical time. Premium bookings on the airline's marquee New York-London route have fallen faster than the Dow--the implosion of New York's financial sector has hit particularly hard. So BA is not only discounting its Club World business-class seats--they can be bought for about $1,800 roundtrip, 84 percent off the normal fare, until February 20--but it's also looking to spruce up onboard services. Transoceanic communications may be just the start.

Further reading:
* The Club World  sale is on until February 20 and you must buy it two weeks before departure  for travel through April 17. Club World has flat beds--it is, by all  accounts, an exceptional business class product.
* An update on the resurgence of the passenger rights movement: Continental Airlines has come out with a voluntary "rights" plan: If a plane is stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, passengers have the right to deplane--and the airplane will return to the gate unless it's close to taking off. There are a few exceptions, but that's nearly identical to the rights legislation pending in Congress. Watch for more airlines to follow, in which case the industry may be able to persuade Congress to back off. Which, of course, is what cynics say is the point . . .
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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