In Europe, the Middle East and Asia, airlines that wire planes for connectivity can install special equipment to allow passengers to use their own cell phones to make and receive calls. Domestic airlines own about 90 percent of the world’s connected planes, but federal regulations still ban the use of in-flight mobile calls.
And while USA doesn’t outlaw mid-air communications made using Skype or other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, every U.S. carrier offering broadband has directed service providers such as Aircell/Gogo and Row 44 to block all voice calls and disable the VoIP function.
The disconnection may get wider. At the end of 2010, more than 2,000 airplanes were wired for connectivity. “We expect that number to increase by 50 percent this year, to roughly 3,000 planes worldwide,” said Amy Cravens, a market analyst for In-Stat. With more international carriers jumping on the connectivity bandwagon, much of that growth will likely be represented by jets owned by airlines planning to, or already providing, mobile phone service. And unless something changes in the U.S., some analysts worry the only travelers who will be unreachable by mobile phone will be those flying in U.S. airspace.
International travelers chat away
Providers such as OnAir and AeroMobile, and a variety of their equipment partners, have been working with international airlines to install equipment that allows mobile phone calls in addition to other entertainment and communication services. (The European Aviation Safety Agency lifted its ban on in-flight cell phone use in 2007.)
Oman Air, Egypt Air, Libyan Airlines, Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian are among the airlines that currently offer in-flight voice calls on many of its aircraft. British Airways allows mobile phone use on a single route: an all-business class flight between London and New York. Malaysia Airlines and others are conducting trials before committing to a formal rollout of a mobile phone service.
“Emirates is the airline everyone is watching with regard to passenger acceptance of in-flight calls; and of course, whether the service is commercially viable,” said Raymond Kollau, a market and trend analyst for Airlinetrends.com. The carrier operates 90 jets equipped with in-flight connectivity. “People have been able to use their mobile phones on our planes for about three years now,” said Patrick Brannelly, Emirates’ vice president for product, publishing, digital and events.
Cell phone users made between 15,000 and 20,000 calls per month from Emirates flights in 2010, Brannelly said. “Each call averaged about two minutes. And during that year we had only one complaint,” he said. “Now the complaint we’re hearing from passengers is why we don’t have the mobile phone service on every aircraft.”