NYTimes: After years of debate over the use of cellphones aboard airplanes in flight, the moment of truth has very nearly arrived. Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, installed satellite-based technology that allows voice calls and text messaging on one of its Boeing 777’s late last year and expects to begin offering the service to passengers on an international route yet to be announced early next month.
The service has already obtained approval from air safety and telecommunications regulators in 25 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, over about 30 routes that Emirates flies. The carrier expects to outfit its entire fleet with the technology within a couple of years.
Half a dozen other airlines, including Air France-KLM, Ryanair and Qantas, are expected to offer similar service in Europe and Australia later this year. Travelers in North America will await the outcome of reviews by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration.
So with the technological and legal hurdles rapidly falling away, what can passengers expect ?
According to David Poltorak, president of AeroMobile, a British company providing the cellular technology to Emirates and Qantas, any GSM-standard phone will work on the system if the passenger’s mobile subscription includes international roaming.
Voice calls — to be allowed only at altitudes above 3,000 meters (about 9,800 feet) to avoid potential interference with land-based communications systems — will be billed at $3 to $3.50 a minute for outbound and inbound calls, with AeroMobile, the airline and the passenger’s mobile service provider each taking a cut.
AeroMobile says the cost is in line with existing intercontinental roaming charges of $2 to $6 a minute. Calls made from airplane seat-back phones now cost $4 to $5 a minute.
Emirates, which has seat-back phones on its fleet of 100 planes, said its passengers make about 6,000 calls a month, a total of 220 hours of talk time. “People use them more than you would think,” an AeroMobile spokesman, David Coiley, said.
George Cooper, chief executive of OnAir, a Geneva-based affiliate of the plane builder Airbus that is behind the Ryanair and Air France mobile phone projects, is similarly confident about the market potential.
“The research we have done since 2003 shows with remarkable consistency that the majority of people want to be able to make voice calls,” Mr. Cooper said.
A survey commissioned by OnAir found that 80 percent of 2,413 air travelers polled in London, Paris and Hong Kong had a positive view of in-flight cellphone use, with 54 percent of business travelers and 41 percent of leisure travelers saying they would like to make or receive calls.
But in other studies, passengers reacted negatively. An online poll of 50,000 air travelers worldwide published by Skytrax, a market research company in London, found that only 10 percent of passengers favored mobile phone use in flight, while 84 percent were opposed. Another survey, conducted in 2005 by Forrester Research, found that 23 percent of 5,051 travelers in the United States and Canada wanted to be able make or receive calls while flying.
Mr. Cooper argued that passenger attitudes toward voice calls varied, depending on the length of the flight.
“A voice call on a short-haul journey tends to be part of the business day,” he said. “You are maybe traveling to or from a meeting, and most of the people you are likely to call are in the same time zone.”
For intercontinental flights, the matter is more complicated. “The people you’d want to call might be asleep,” Mr. Cooper said.
So, for that matter, might the passenger seated next to you.
Both the AeroMobile and OnAir systems allow the airliner’s cabin crew to switch off the voice capability during simulated “night” portions of long flights.
Moreover, aircraft base stations will be able to handle only about five or six voice calls at a time. In cases of heavy demand, additional calls will be placed in a waiting line. Text messages, unaffected by the six-call limit or the quiet-time part of the flight, will be free to receive and will cost about $1 to send on AeroMobile’s system and 50 to 60 cents with OnAir.
Mr. Poltorak said the initial version of the AeroMobile system running on Emirates’ planes would not be able to handle Internet data calls, and e-mail messages would not be an option at the outset. But Qantas plans to test a 64-kilobit-a-second data version of the system on a few domestic flights this year, and that should be fast enough to support e-mail but not Web browsing.
Fees for data calls will be in line with existing international data roaming fees, which can vary widely depending on a passenger’s home operator. Vodafone, for example, charges European users 75 euros a month ($96.86) to send or receive up to 100 megabits of data on its networks in Europe, Australia and Japan. T-Mobile charges 39 to 79 euro cents (50 cents to $1.02) per 50 kilobits, depending on the country.
Mr. Cooper of OnAir said the profusion of e-mail-equipped smart phone devices like Research in Motion’s BlackBerry and Palm’s Treo had created a growing number of frequent travelers inclined to communicate on the go. OnAir’s system will include mobile e-mail when service begins later this year.
“We expect much of the usage to be text messaging and e-mailing,” Mr. Cooper said.
Mr. Poltorak acknowledged that AeroMobile expected less than 10 percent of air passengers to use the voice service, or perhaps 30 to 40 passengers on a fully booked 777.
Airlines do not seem to expect mobile calling to be much of a money maker, at least in the short term.
“Emirates does not consider this service a profit center,” said Patrick Brannelly, its vice president for passenger communications. “It is an investment in customer service.”
That caution is no doubt informed by Boeing’s experiment with Connexion, an on-board Internet service that, despite rave reviews from some passengers, failed to generate enough use to be profitable. Boeing began phasing out the service to airlines, including Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, late last year.
Still, the high rates for on-board mobile calls worry some. “This is a market that is totally unregulated,” said Sergio Antocicco, chairman of the International Telecommunications Users Group in Brussels, which tracks services and costs.