A Cure for Separation Anxiety

by Amy H. Blankstein

If you can’t stand to be separated from your cell phone during those interminably long flights, an airtime reunion is at hand. This summer, Virgin Atlantic Airways introduced its Earth Calling service, allowing passengers to send and receive cell phone calls in flight.

Don’t get too excited just yet. As of publication, the service was available on just one 747, and is limited to phones using GSM service, the standard connection type throughout Europe and Asia. Currently, only a handful of providers in the United States offer the service.

And if showing off your high tech accessory is just as important as the actual call, prepare to be disappointed. Cell phone use during flights is still banned by FCC regulations because it disrupts cell service on the ground. Instead, a customers’ calls are routed from a special ground switching station to a satellite that links into the airline’s phone service.

Passengers pick up and send calls through individual handsets linked to the inflight entertainment system, just as they would to use traditional inflight phones, which have been available for years. To access cell calls, passengers first procure datacards from their phone providers. Once onboard the plane, they swipe the cards through their seat handset to activate the connection. Unlike traditional inflight phone access, calls are billed to the passenger’s cell phone account, instead of to a credit card.

Passengers receive notification of calls in two ways. If they’re wearing a headset, they hear a slight pinging. If not, the message “Earth Calling” scrolls across their seatback video screen display. While this delivery method takes care of the prospect of constant beeping throughout a flight, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that other passengers will be disturbed by bad cell phone manners. But according to Sharon Pomerantz, Virgin Atlantic’s director of industry public affairs, the airline believes other customers won’t be too inconvenienced. “We do presume people will be considerate of one another, so we don’t forsee an issue.” she says. “I definitely think more people will want the service than not.”

The service, developed by British Telecommunications, is just one of a number being developed by airlines and plane manufacturers in hopes of placating the increasingly temperamental beast that is the airline passenger. The next step is inflight e-mail and Web access — which Virgin Atlantic plans to have available by 2002.

Of course, if you want to break your image as business dynamo and take a nap, that’s okay too. “If you want to deactivate it after you get that goodnight call from your kids, or that important business message that you had to have at 30,000 miles, you can.” Pomerantz says.

Must Read