update Some international airlines have introduced mobile phone use while aloft. The services are available only on select flights, and exactly what you can do with your phone will vary, but more airlines are warming to the idea.
Few things in air travel are as polarising as mobile phone use on commercial flights. Though many people quake at the thought of being sealed in a metal tube next to a loud talker, others aren't quite as concerned with peace and quiet. Similarly, while some travellers savour the idea of being out of touch for a few hours, others can't bear the thought of going more than a few minutes without checking their email or updating their Facebook status.
In the US, at least, such a debate is moot since the Federal Aviation Administration shows no sings of budging from its firm "no phones" rule in the sky. But outside the US, some international airlines have introduced the use of mobile phones while aboard an aeroplane.
The table below lists airlines that currently offer mobile phone use on-board.
|Airline||Which flights?||Voice calls||Texting||Email/data|
|Aeroflot||Select short-haul flights||—||X||X|
|Air Asia||Select short-haul flights||X||X||X|
|British Airways||Flights between London City Airport and JFK||—||X||X|
|Emirates||Select long-haul flights||X||X||X|
|EgyptAir||Select long-haul flights||X||X||X|
|Libyan Airlines||Select short-haul flights||X||X||X|
|Malaysia Airlines||Select Boeing 777 flights||X||X||X|
|Oman Air||Select Airbus A330 flights||X||X||X|
|Qatar Airways||Select Airbus A320 flights||—||X||X|
|Royal Jordanian||Select short-haul flights||X||X||X|
|Saudi Arabian Airlines||Select Airbus A330 flights||X||X||X|
|TAM||Select Airbus A321 flights||X||X||X|
|TAP Portugal||Select Airbus A319 flights||X||X||X|
|Wataniya Airways||Select short-haul flights||X||X||X|
Most restrict use to "silent" activities like texting and email, but four airlines — Emirates, Saudi Arabian, TAM and Malaysia — allow you to make voice calls. Take-off and landing are still times when your handset must be powered off, but calling home is now an option if you're flying to Dubai, Riyadh, Sao Paulo or Kuala Lumpur. And in case you're keeping score, Emirates is the only airline to install showers on certain aircraft.
The technology, which doesn't use standard cell towers, is provided through two companies, AeroMobile and OnAir (Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is a partner in the latter company). In OnAir's case, a "leaky cable" inside the plane broadcasts the cellular signal in the cabin and also converts your communications into a satellite signal. And don't worry about possible interference, as neither company's technology will interfere with navigational systems. Of course, whether that interference even happens is a whole other debate.
Keep in mind that in an era when airlines charge for food and pillows, using your phone won't come cheap. Texts alone can be five to 10 times the price of standard texts. For voice calls you should count on paying at least US$3 per minute. Data charges will vary, but count on them being pricey as well. If you have an opinion on in-flight calling — and we're sure that most of you do — be sure to leave your comment below.
Airlines that have announced mobile phone service:
- Air New Zealand
- Cathay Pacific
- Turkish Airlines
- V Australia
- Virgin Atlantic
Airlines that have completed trials of mobile phone use:
- Air France
Updated at 9:30am, 7 February 2011: added information on the availability of voice calling with some airlines.