Some Airlines Eye Cell Phones, Wi-Fi As Revenue

Powering the change is new technology designed to keep cell-phone signals from interfering with a plane's guidance system and ground networks.


During a recent trip to Panama, Orlando lawyer Robert Terenzio encountered airline passengers breaking the rules and being rude by talking loudly on their cell phones during the flight.

"There was a knucklehead on the trip down and another coming back who I had to ask to turn off their phones," said Terenzio, a frequent flier. "They both looked at me like I had three eyes or something, but they got off their phones."

As soon as next year, however, it might be OK for passengers to make calls from their mobile phones while airborne -- though they could have to pay as much as $10 a flight for the privilege.

A European carrier, Ryanair, is expected to introduce cell-phone service on its planes next year. And U.S. airlines will probably follow suit, industry analysts and others say, though the airlines themselves aren't saying much on the subject.

Powering the change is new technology designed to keep cell-phone signals from interfering with a plane's guidance system and ground networks, experts say -- and airlines' desire to tap a new source of revenue.

Three industry analysts and U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees aviation security, said last week that the service is definitely coming to U.S. skies.

Most agreed it could debut next year and become commonplace by 2008.

"I absolutely expect it to happen next year," said Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst of travel research for Forrester Research Inc.

New technology

U.S. airlines could dip their toes into the cellular waters cautiously, not wanting to offend passengers who might flee to other carriers to avoid listening to other passengers' conversations, said Jeff Kagan, a telecom-industry analyst.

It's already technically possible to make a call from an airliner under certain conditions using your own cell phone. But there are several hurdles: Airlines ban use of electronic devices below 10,000 feet; it's difficult to get a signal on a cell phone above 20,000 feet; and cellular coverage can be spotty or nonexistent over water or lightly populated areas.

The solution, experts say, appears to be a new technology -- pico cells -- that handles calls made by plane passengers from their mobile phones. The equipment, installed on each jetliner, picks up, or captures, the signal from a cell phone, preventing it from interfering with the plane's guidance system while funneling it to the proper connecting point on the ground.

"Ryanair's implementation next year in Europe will expedite the timetable here in the U.S.," Mica predicted. Congressional hearings in July 2005 helped allay fears of safety and security issues, he said.

The sheer popularity of cellular phones in this country adds to the likelihood of cellular conversations finding their way into the air, said Diana Hwang, an analyst for IDC Research Inc.

"But the adoption may not quite as rapid as in Europe," she said.

Airlines haven't openly discussed fees for making calls, but European carriers are expected to charge $2.50 to $3 a minute, and some experts think a flat fee of $10 per flight for phone calls, e-mail and wireless Web access might be workable in the U.S.

A bigger issue is how people will react to having other passengers yakking endlessly on their phones, experts say.

"In tight quarters on a long flight, you don't want to be next to a chatterbox sharing Grandma's chocolate-chip-cookie recipe," Harteveldt said.

Frequent travelers, including business people, want to maintain productivity and connectivity -- but without distractions, said Bill Connors, executive director of the National Business Travelers Association.

"There are plenty of times I'd like to do e-mail on a BlackBerry on a four-hour flight, but I wouldn't necessarily want to get on the phone," Connors said.

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