Analyst: EU In-flight Calls A 'Dodgy' Proposition


"There have been in-flight phone products for 20 years, and the economics of them have been dodgy at best," he said, referring to the clunky air phones integrated into the back of airplane headrests. "In Europe, it's easy to say the airlines are enabled to allow these calls, but no airlines have it on board."

The service would work by allowing passengers' phones to be linked to an onboard cellular network connected to the ground via satellite, simultaneously preventing phones from connecting directly to mobile networks on the ground below, according to an EU release. The cellular service will be turned off during takeoff and landing, and can only be used at altitudes around 10,000 feet and higher. The captain will have the ability to disconnect service at any time, which the EU said bolsters the safety of other passengers in the case of an emergency.

Part of the problem, one that has been somewhat alleviated in recent years, is the weight and bulk of the transmission infrastructure on the planes themselves. Large antennae and transceivers increase drag and lower fuel economy, requiring the airline to pass those costs along. While Mann concedes miniaturization has lessened these costs, infrastructure requirements, and their associated up-front costs, remains.

Reasonable cost to passengers is another area where a successful execution will be critical. "The issue is the price point," he said. Mann jokes airlines may as well charge extra for "quiet zones," sections of the plane where no cell phone use is permitted, in addition for charging passengers to use the cell service. EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding told Reuters price would indeed be a big issue. "Now we expect operators to be transparent and innovative in their price offerings," she said. "However, if consumers receive shock phone bills, the service will not take off."

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In the U.S., a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) open docket inviting comments on the issue of mobile calls on airplanes offered a chance for one of the most vocal groups to weigh in against the decision: flight attendants. "They don't want to be in the business of uniformed control," Mann said.

There's also the issue of flight duration between European countries that limits the appeal of in-flight mobile calls, he said. "In Europe, you rarely fly more than three hours anywhere, and if you're flying from central Europe it's even less," he said. "It seems this would be most useful on longer flights where you'd be out of touch for a better part of the business day."