What? Wireless Air Travel? Yeah, It’s Coming Soon

In early 2007, OnAir will arrive. OnAir is a service that uses satellite technology to enable air travel passengers to use wireless devices such as mobile phones, Internet connections from computers and Blackberries during a flight. The debate over the use of wireless technology during flight has been going on for years, and now that it’s about to happen, the debate is likely to heat up.

First of all, you should know that the first wave of this will not be happening on US flights. Airbus, the plane manufacturer who is creating this technology, is selling it to AirFrance. AirFrance is expected to have the service available to passengers in early 2007. Whether passengers will have to pay for the service like they pay for headphones for a movie is not known yet. Two other airlines, the British airline bmi and TAP Air Portugal are both considering using OnAir, but nothing has been finalized, yet.

So what is the debate all about? Who wouldn’t want the convenience of using their cell phone during a long flight, getting important e-mails on their Blackberry or having the luxury of surfing the Internet to pass the time? Apparently, lots of people and for some very valid reasons.

The Safety Consideration

There has been an ongoing concern that the use of mobile phones (cell phones to us Americans) and other devices that use wireless technology could interfere with the plane’s navigational equipment. Recent technological advances in both navigational equipment and cell phone technology seem to negate this concern, but not everyone is convinced. There is concern that the navigational equipment on older planes may still be affected.

The Mobile Phone Debate

Okay, suppose the safety issue is taken care of and there is no concern that wireless communications technology will interfere with the plane’s navigational equipment. What objection is there to the use of mobile phone’s during a flight?

Surveys have shown that the majority of air travelers are against the use of mobile phones on an airplane because it would be downright annoying to sit next to someone who is receiving and making phone calls for hours on a flight. They imagine being stuck between two incessant talkers.

Common sense would seem to tell you that people wouldn’t really be so inconsiderate as to have hour’s long conversations on their mobile phone during a flight. But experience has shown us when it comes to mobile phones, most people loose their common sense. People will hold loud personal conversations in restaurants and grocery stores and on buses. They will drive using a handheld mobile phone even states where it has been made illegal. So does anyone really believe that people will use common sense and consideration during air travel? Not really.

It’s easy to see the scenario. Business people who intend to be considerate will receive what they deem to be a very important business call and end up talking longer than they expected. Or, a mom who just wants to check on her children for a minute will end up having to chat with each one of them before she can hang up.

It’s no wonder that air travel passengers are concerned that the use of mobile phones will become an annoyance during flights. They already are an annoyance down on the ground. Another concern some air travelers have will be the tension that all of this annoyance will create, perhaps making already jittery flyers more frustrated and pushing them over the edge.

Some people are already nervous just about flying. Add a cramped, overcrowded plane to the mix, the constant threat of terrorism, the restrictions on what can be carried on, and now the addition of an inconsiderate mobile phone user sitting right next to that nervous flyer, and someone might just snap.

What about Internet connection?

Travelers aren’t as adamantly against the use of Internet connections for computers and pda’s such as Blackberrys. Those devices are quiet. Many passengers already use their laptop computers on a flight; it’s just not connected to the Internet when they use it. Being able to send and receive e-mail messages while on a flight could be convenient to most people, particularly business travelers. There doesn’t seem to be much of a debate over these devices as long as safety is not a concern.

What Can be Done?

When should you start being concerned with this issue? As of right now, US carriers don’t seem to be considering using OnAir or any service like it. A report on MSN Travel said that the airlines that they asked AirTran, Spirit, and US Airways all said that they have heard their passengers say they don’t want mobile phones used on planes and are against adding the services. However, the question is, if these services do catch on in Europe and prove to be a money maker for the carriers who use it, will the US carriers jump on board? In an era of shrinking profits, will they be able to resist?

So if the trial that AirFrance is giving OnAir proves to be successful and the US carriers jump on board, what can be done to make sure that mobile phone usage does not become a problem on board?

One solution is to have no cell phone usage times. Perhaps next to the little light above your seat that lets you know if you need to have your seat belt fastened or not, there could be another light that lets you know if it’s the proper time to use your cell phone or not. Cell phone time could be restricted on long flights and on flights that are overnight when most people would want to sleep.

Another solution is to give the crew the ability to disable the voice function on devices during restricted times. During those times text messaging and e-mailing would be allowed, but talking would be disabled.

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