Talking Point: In-flight mobile phones

Is it good to talk at 30,000 feet? Or does the thought of a plane-load of mobile phone conversations fill you with horror? Frank Partridge takes some soundings
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The Independent Travel

The mobile phone debate divides air travellers into two irreconcilable camps: those who regard the temporary loss of their mobile service as akin to losing an arm, and those who relish the period between take-off and landing as one of the few remaining occasions in life when they can't be reached by the office – or anyone elser.

Ironically, it's the anti-chatter brigade who have been the most talkative since the news last year that the technology is now in place to enable travellers to make in-flight calls without affecting the cockpit's communication and navigation systems. A quality UK newspaper has launched a campaign against in-flight calls, and not one of the several hundred readers who have posted comments on its website is in favour of them.

"No, no, no, no, no!"

"I'd rather have smoking than mobiles."

"It's enough to persuade me not to fly at all"

These are just three responses that sum up their feelings, based on the distraction callers would cause to fellow air travellers who prefer to read, sleep or simply switch off from the cares of the world. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom is aware of the "potential for an increased level of agitation among passengers who have to listen to other people's conversations ".

But the website rants don't reflect the true picture. Remember the outcry surrounding the televising of Parliament or moving the FA Cup final to Cardiff? People who are against things tend to make more noise than those who accept certain innovations as inevitable. Two published surveys suggest that four out of five air travellers are in favour of allowing in-flight calls – as long as they can be proved to be safe – and 54 per cent of business travellers reckon they'll use the facility.

"Who cares?" says management trainer Richard Parsons. " Sometimes being able to make a quick phone call could be extremely handy. And whatever happened to free speech?"

"In-flight calls would be very useful," believes broadcaster Allan King, "as long as they don't charge you a fortune for using them."

Current forecasts are that calls will cost around £1.30 a minute, and text messages 35p.

Masayuki Kurihara, an interior designer, says: "We have to keep moving with technology and obviously some people will want to use a mobile regardless of the cost. How about a separate compartment for the chatterboxes?"

Sheila Nuttall, a journalist, is firmly in the sceptics' camp: "Surely no call is so important that it can't wait until you land?"

The system, developed by OnAir, has been given the green light by the European Aviation Safety Agency, and several airlines have begun or are considering trials. OnAir's chief communications officer Graham Lake acknowledges the public's concerns. "One wouldn't necessarily want to be sat next to someone who talked for the whole flight," he says, " but the cabin crew have control over the system and can decide to de-activate it at night, for example."

Two more possible compromises are suggested by Stefan Graichen, an engineer: "Mobile use could be restricted to short-haul flights only, or passengers could be allowed "silent" communications only – texts and emails via their laptops and hand-held devices."

British Airways is standing back from the debate, preferring to wait for customer feedback. "If you asked someone on a business flight to Brussels, they'd probably welcome the ability to ensure their meeting was still on, or the paperwork had been properly prepared," said a spokesman. "But ask the same question to the same person on a 12-hour flight to Hong Kong and he might tell you something very different."

Air France has installed the system on one of its Airbuses, and passengers are being asked to fill in a questionnaire at the end of the flight to give their verdict.

But it's a safe bet that sometime in 2008 in-flight mobile calls will become a reality on a handful of European airlines. If that newspaper is anything to go by, their customers will instantly defect in droves. Watch this space.

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