Will airborne calls be a big issue in the future?

Written by Staff Writer at CNN

Airlines have started offering Wi-Fi services on board their aircraft for a fee, and are speeding up the time it takes to board. But what will happen when passengers are provided with mobile phones as they arrive at the gate?

“No airline wants the phone to be stopped at the gate, they want it on,” said Jennifer McKenna, former head of global air transport policy at the Civil Aviation Authority of Ireland.

Airplanes were designed for personal use as passengers enjoyed the airlift for only a very short amount of time.

Technology is moving on, with places on the ground that are already dependent on cell phones.

“People are much more connected every day,” said McKenna. “Whenever you look at somebody from here, to say, ‘Are you available for calling?’ it’s a moot point any more.

“There are incredible places where Wi-Fi, or ‘cellular connectivity,’ has been carried out already on land. Land is not as static as the aircraft, it’s more dynamic.”

But she says it’s still a question of when, not if.

“Imagine you’re going to an airplane and you can have Wi-Fi, and you are going to be able to make phone calls from the plane,” she said. “That’s going to affect scheduling patterns, even the way that seat-selection works.”

She argues that phone calls could affect the quality of in-flight entertainment, and higher voice volumes could cause interference with other aircraft.

The last time we discussed the possibility of commercial phone calls was in 2006, when journalists Mike Allen and Robert McMillan highlighted that they might be “inevitable” in future.

So what would the situation be like in 2020?

U.S. radio operator XM and satcaster Sirius have both announced plans to roll out in-flight cellular connections in 2020, leaving only a handful of major airlines without service, including Japan Airlines, as well as Southwest and JetBlue.

United Airlines has already signaled it’s keen to get on board. The U.S. carrier released a statement in August, and said “we’re always exploring innovations to create a better, more comfortable flying experience.”

To date, European airlines have shied away from bringing in-flight telephone calls on board, with Ryanair, for example, announcing “no plans to engage in such activities” in the past.

But McKenna insists that “substantially increasing mobile communications capabilities is really a non-event for the aviation industry.”

As with the panic surrounding implementing cabin reclining seats, she argues this is unnecessary over the long term.

“Ultimately passengers are going to adapt to these things,” she said. “There is a certain amount of dependency for people on this sense of safety and security that Wi-Fi and Cell-On-Demand can augment.”

Travellers can check just how crowded the skies will be by viewing Aviation Today’s Flight Prediction

An international collaboration of scientists have analysed how much air is being affected by cell phone signals on the ground, so that it could be tested.

Already, hundreds of phones have been carrying out constant cell phone tests on the ground for an hour a day.

“We think this data will identify the kinds of interference, and identify which types of aircraft are particularly sensitive to it,” said Michael R. Chen, an applied physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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