Cellphones on planes: Will they work?

Researchers are looking into when passengers will be able to make calls on planes

Cell phone calls could be an on-board feature on commercial flights within a few years.

The technology is still in its infancy, and pilots remain noncommittal about whether they should be allowed to call from the flight deck. Currently, the only phones allowed on flights are passenger-only devices such as walkie-talkies and flip phones, banned by most airlines and regulators.

Steve Paine, an analyst at industry consultancy Ascend, says the capability is being perfected and he expects major air carriers to deploy the service by 2023.

“Our data suggests that commercial pilots are not adverse to it; I think they’d probably rather not but in many ways they’d rather forgo it,” he said.

Paine adds that the new industry standard for in-flight entertainment “is quite extensive and people don’t want to have to be distracted”.

Airlines are working to finalise rules governing the use of advanced cellphone technology for cell calls, which may require them to install mobile towers on the ground as a backup if the phones are not allowed on planes.

In the US, it is likely that the Federal Communications Commission will make a decision sometime next year. The agency has previously expressed reluctance to allow calls on planes, noting that cellphone service can interfere with flight systems such as navigation, communications and power supplies.

British Airways, which currently allows passengers to make voice calls via wifi, uses the air-to-ground networks and not the satellite-based ones that are now widely available in the US.

Paine predicts that Emirates, Emirates’ Dubai-based subsidiary, will be the first airline to release a product with a call capability. Other airlines may follow.

The company plans to roll out wi-fi and in-flight TV service on most of its Airbus A380 jets next year, and will begin offering wifi, mobile calls and internet access in July on its Boeing 777-300ERs.

Passengers using wi-fi will be able to make calls when on a Wi-Fi hotspot on the ground, and when in-flight. They will also be able to make calls through the aircraft’s public internet network. But Emirates is limiting the capacity of its wi-fi in order to transmit messages back to ground stations about when to expect that they will need to cut the signal.

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