Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Latest Airline Hell: Cell Phones Are Coming

Singapore Airline’s announcement it will soon allow wireless connections for medium and long-haul flights -- for text messages, Blackberries and perhaps cell phones -- brings the use of cell phones much closer to US airways, a prospect that many travelers dread so much they compare it to Hell.

“The train for cell phones on commercial jets left the station a couple of years ago and is gaining speed,” commented Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare-search site He predicted it won’t be long until airlines allow cell phone use.

"It's going to be hell," said John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet. "People are going to be so tired from a long flight and want to sleep, and you're going to hear someone's annoying phone go off and then talking so loud, telling the person on the line everything."

DiScala, who travels around 150,000 miles and visits more than 20 countries each year, said he supports text messages and Internet access but not voice calls. "It's just going to be chaos hearing all these different phones ring," he said. "There are so many people who don't have cell phone manners." Of course, how fast and whether other airlines adopt similar practices may depend on traveler reactions.

The Singapore move comes as the airline announces a multi-million-dollar collaboration with in-flight connectivity provider OnAir to offer Wi-Fi Internet access and other services on its flights.

Details are still being worked out, but when the airline implements the system early next year, it could be the first carrier to regularly allow passengers to make and receive voice calls on their personal cell phones.

Cell phone use on airplanes is prohibited in the United States by federal regulations.

Singapore Airlines flies some of the world's longest flights, including an 18-and-a-half-hour flight from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York to Singapore. That all-business class, 10,371-mile flight is the longest commercial trip in the world. The 100-seat plane is used mainly by corporate travelers.

"The reason we are exploring this is because our customers tell us that on ultra-long haul flights it's important that they have the option to be as connected or not connected as they choose to be," said Singapore Airlines spokesman James Boyd.

"Voice calls are a capability of the system and it's an option that we may open to customers in the future," he said. "There are a number of questions that will have to be explored as we continue to get feedback from our customers on how the system should be managed."

Another question is whether the airline will charge for the service and or how much it will cost.
One option the airline might explore: quiet zones or cell-phone only zones, much as Amtrak has "quiet cars" on its trains.

Not everyone agrees that any similar move would be a disaster, of course.
“Despite predictions that in-flight cellphone usage would lead to Armageddon, the global rollout has been just the opposite,” writes Carl Biersack, executive director of the Inflight Passengers Communications Coalition writes in an article called “If Europe Can Handle In-Flight Cellphone Use, So Can America.”

In 20 months of sporadic global usage, there has not been one reported incident or problem, he says. In fact, 93 percent of passengers who flew on an in-flight communication-equipped aircraft want all jets so equipped, he maintained.

There are a number of reasons Europeans calling on cell phones works better than it would in the US.

International roaming rates have proven to be an “effective form of self-discipline.” In addition, usage is restricted to six lines at any one moment once the airplane reaches cruising level.

“Additionally, air carriers have developed effective procedures, such as turning the service off on overnight flights, that ensure that in-flight communication does not disturb others, “ he said.

By David Wilkening

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