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Up in the Air on Cellphones

A majority of business travelers surveyed say they don't want the devices used in flight, but if airlines allow it, they'll use them.

September 30, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Business travelers seem to be of two minds when it comes to allowing the use of cellphones on airplanes while in flight, according to opinion polls.

A majority say they don't want the phones used on airplanes, yet a slight majority say that if they are allowed, they will use them.

"I would use it, and I would also like it and resent it at the same time," says Ray Maietta, president of Long Island, N.Y.-based Research Talk Inc., a consulting firm.

Having the ability on long, cross-country flights to take care of a forgotten detail would be invaluable, he says. But he also uses his time in the air to write -- one of the few uninterrupted moments in his otherwise hectic life that he can do so.

"The thing I would resent is the whole 'at any moment you can be tracked down' part of it," he says. "On a plane nobody knows I'm there; nobody can find me."

Opinion polls vary -- often depending on who is asking and what the questions are.

In a survey conducted for Carlson Wagonlit Travel and published in February, 61% of business travelers worldwide said they were opposed to allowing cellphones to be used in flight. Europeans were 70% opposed. North Americans appeared more tolerant, with just 57% opposing the idea.

Yet another survey suggested that most business travelers would take along their cellphone, but only about half would use it.

That global survey, released this month, was commissioned by OnAir, a Geneva-based passenger voice and data communications joint venture that hopes to offer cellphone service on European aircraft next year.

It showed that 92% of business travelers and 81% of leisure travelers carry mobile phones when traveling. Of those, 54% of business travelers said they would turn their phones on -- if allowed -- on an airplane. And 41% of leisure travelers would do the same.

Business travelers who said they would turn their phones on would use it to accept calls (96%) and send text messages and e-mails (85%). Eighty-two percent said they would use it to place calls.

The question has been largely academic. But that is changing, at least in some parts of the world.

In August, Irish carrier Ryanair announced that beginning in mid-2007 it would install Mobile OnAir technology that would allow the use of cellphones while in flight in its entire fleet of more than 200 Boeing 737 aircraft that crisscross Europe.

Other European carriers including Air France, TAP Portugal and BMI will begin a test of the Mobile OnAir system on intra-Europe routes beginning in February, an OnAir spokeswoman said.

On the other side of the world, Qantas Airways announced this month that it would launch a three-month trial in the first quarter of 2007 of an in-flight cellphone system. It will be tested on intra-Australia routes.

For travelers who are worried about being seated next to someone yakking away the entire flight, there is a bright spot.

The service will not be cheap and will work only with a few of the major U.S. cellphone carriers, including Cingular Wireless, that can be equipped for overseas use.

The OnAir service will cost $2.50 a minute, which should serve to keep conversations short and to the point. OnAir says it is roughly the cost of international roaming.

Cingular charges me $1.29 a minute for roaming when I use my cellphone on the ground in Europe. The $2.50 a minute charged for calls made while in flight would be instead of that roaming charge and not another add-on.

Once this service is available, check with your cellphone carrier to see whether it works with your phone. Travelers must have a cellphone that is equipped with GSM (global system for mobile communications) technology that has had its international roaming enabled. Cingular Wireless is the largest provider of GSM service in the United States.

Text messages and e-mails from devices such as a BlackBerry or a Treo will also work with the systems. Text messages will cost about 50 cents, according to OnAir.

Americans have become spoiled because most of our cellphone plans have free roaming throughout the nation. That will probably not be true when using your cellphone on a domestic flight, should a U.S. carrier move to introduce that capability.

None have yet done so because they are waiting for government approval. The Federal Communications Commission is considering rule changes that would allow the use of cellphones in flight -- subject to the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is conducting tests to make certain there is no interference with cockpit communications.

As for getting seated next to someone who is much too chatty, travelers will learn to adapt to the new manners of in-flight cellphone use, predicts consultant Maietta, who is a sociologist.

"Behaviors regulate themselves," he says. "I don't want to sit next to someone who's talking all the time. But people will work it out."

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james.gilden@latimes.com

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