• WEATHER ALERT Severe Thunderstorm Watch

EU to allow cell phone service on planes

April 7, 2008 3:07:40 PM PDT
You can use your cell phone in the skies over Europe later this year under new rules that will allow air travelers to stay in touch - and raise the cringe-inducing prospect of sitting next to a chatterbox at 30,000 feet. But don't expect to use your phone on a U.S. flight anytime soon.

The decision Monday by the European Union makes the 27-nation bloc the first region in the world to scrap bans on the use of cell phones in the sky. The EU insists the change will not compromise safety.

Cell phone calls will be connected through an onboard base station - think of a miniature cell phone tower - linked to a satellite and then to ground networks. A flight's captain will have the power to turn off service anytime.

Phone service will be blocked during takeoff and landing, EU spokesman Martin Selmayr said. That means using your cell phone will fall under roughly the same restrictions as using your laptop or iPod.

EU officials also say the system has been thoroughly tested. They say the calls will not interfere with flight navigation and will have additional safeguard to protect against terrorism.

Meanwhile, travelers are already expressing concern about another kind of disruption - noisy passengers. The friendly skies are one of the last refuges against shrill ringtones and yapping callers.

"If they use a mobile phone on long distance flights, it would be an inconvenience, especially at night," said Stein Smulders of Halle, Belgium, who commutes by train.

In the United States, cell phone use on flights is banned by two regulatory agencies. Both said Monday they had no plans to change their rules.

Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency had a concern that the phones could interfere with planes' electronic equipment.

"The bottom line for us is that the FAA has no plans to allow passengers to use cell phones on commercial flights," Duquette said.

The Federal Communications Commission also bans cell phone use on flights, out of concern for interfering with cell phone networks on the ground. That agency opened a review of the issue in 2004 but ended it last year without taking action.

On European flights, installing a base station on the plane will allow calls to go directly to a satellite system, preventing phones from wreaking havoc with flight instruments by sending out signals indiscriminately, EU officials said.

The system will rely on European GSM technology. Although the technical standards for American and European GSM phones are different, American GSM phones would work on European flights.

Installing small base stations on planes helps ensure phones won't give off strong signals trying to connect with a tower on the ground. But Dave Carson, co-chairman of an RTCA Inc. committee studying wireless safety on planes for the FAA, said there was still a risk that a phone might try to connect with a ground tower.

In Europe, travelers will be allowed to turn on their phones after planes climb past 10,000 feet. That's when other electronic devices are typically permitted. Captains will also be able to block cell phone service during turbulence.

The ban remains in place for all U.S. carriers, including domestic and international flights. Duquette said the FAA had not decided whether to block foreign carriers from allowing cell phone use when they enter U.S. airspace.

The new EU rules were welcomed by airlines, some of which, such as Air France-KLM, had already launched a trial of in-flight phone service on some European routes. British Midland Airways Ltd., Portugal's TAP and low-cost airline Ryanair are also planning to offer services later this year.

Dubai-based Emirates Airlines introduced its in-flight phone services last month on its Dubai-to-Casablanca route but limits the number of calls passengers can make and bars calls during night flights.

Selmayr said European regulators would keep a close eye on airlines and phone companies to make sure they set fair rates for in-flight service.

"We understand there is an additional cost because you need to route these services via the onboard cellular network and there is some investment that has to be made," Selmayr said. He did not give any cost comparisons.

The EU also urged airlines to set in-flight etiquette rules to ensure a balance between those wanting to make calls and others seeking a few hours of peace and quiet.

Those rules could include requiring passengers to silence their ringtones, limit their use to text-messaging or e-mail or banning calls during the night, when other passengers are trying to sleep.

German airline Lufthansa said Monday it does not plan to introduce the service because a majority of its customers saw no need. Surveys have shown a large majority of customers against it, Lufthansa spokesman Jan Baerwalde said.

"People don't want to be disturbed," Baerwalde said. Lufthansa will look at providing fast Internet access on its planes, a service it already offered from 2004 until the end of 2006. The airline is looking for a new service partner to reintroduce the service.

The Association of European Airlines said airlines would inevitably set conditions on use to avoid in-flight flare-ups between passengers.

---

Associated Press Writers Raf Casert, Anick Jesdanun, Barbara Schaeder and Pete Yost contributed to this report.

Load Comments