“Hi, I’m on the plane and we’re in turbulence now. Can I call you back?”
Phone chatter like this could become the norm on passenger planes in future if airlines join Virgin Atlantic in allowing mobile phone calls in-flight.
Virgin has become the first UK airline to allow voice calls, with the service limited to 02 and Vodafone customers travelling on board its brand new A330 planes between London and New York.
Passengers will be able to connect and make and receive calls, send texts and access the internet in any cabin, only if international roaming is enabled on their phones.
The service – which is provided by AeroMobile – works by sending a wireless signal from a passenger’s phone through a router on the plane to satellites on the ground.
It will be available on 20 aircraft by the end of 2012, including on board its refurbished 747s, the airline said.
Due to limited bandwidth, passengers will have basic web access, making streaming and online gaming impossible. But Aeromobile said that upgrades are planned in future.
Mobiles phones must still be switched off during taxiing, take-off or landing but the service will be enabled at cruising altitude.
The USA currently has no plans to relax its ban on in-flight mobile phone on US-based commercial planes. Federal laws also don’t allow voice calls within a 250-mile radius of US airspace – when Virgin’s service will be automatically turned off, the airline said.
Paying the price
The cost of texting and calling will be “similar to normal roaming charges” and customers will be billed by their phone provider: 02 or Vodafone, which have so far signed up to the service.
Passengers with pay-as-you-go phones will be able to make calls if their international roaming is activated.
But for many flyers, the cost of using the service at 35,000ft could be prohibitive due to its sheer cost and high roaming data charges.
Virgin has advised smartphone users turn off their data roaming in-flight. Its website states: “Roaming data charges can be expensive and some smartphones use data even if you are not using an app.”
More airlines are offering passengers Wi-Fi in the skies – with Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Qantas among those offering AeroMobile, but these airlines have disabled in-flight voice calls, instead focusing on email connectivity and text messaging.
British Airways offers OnAir mobile phone technology on board its A318 all-business flights between London City and New York, but phone calls are currently disabled. Only emails and text messages are allowed.
A British Airways spokesperson recently told Terminal U that it has no plans “in the short to medium term” to offer Wi-Fi or other phone-based services on other aircraft due to “feedback from passengers who enjoy their privacy.”
Click here for more information on Virgin Atlantic’s AeroMobile service.