Global Airline Competition: Can You Hear Us Now?

Around the world, airlines are introducing voice services while U.S. bars in-flight use of cell phones. 

WASHINGTON-Even as U.S. airlines plan to roll out in-flight broadband services this year, U.S. government restrictions on airline cell phone use are likely to put U.S. carriers at a global competitive disadvantage, a panel of aviation executives said Feb. 5.

Under an agreement signed by American and European carriers in 2007, the airlines will be able to compete in each other's market for transatlantic flights beginning in March. European regulators approved the in-flight use of cell phones, BlackBerry devices and other smart phones last summer.

"Our research and experience around the world point to hugely significant pent-up demand for use of personal cell phones, not just for text and data but for voice calls, too," said David Coiley, the director of marketing and strategic relationships for AeroMobile, a joint venture of Norwegian commercial telecommunications firm Telenor and ground-to-air equipment provider ARINC.

Using a system that controls the power output of all mobile devices, AeroMobile's systems are already in use on Australia's Quantas Airlines. The company is testing or has signed deals for airline cell phone use with carriers in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Air France and other European carriers are also planning on offering cell phone service along broadband connections.

Benoit Debains of France's OnAir, which developed the online and voice service for Air France, said three other European carriers and airlines in China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and India are all planning voice and data services.

"Airlines from every continent show that passengers are eager to use the handsets for in-flight communication and this will become a worldwide requirement," Debains said.

Coiley agreed. "Passengers want the choice to be able to use their cell phones in the air the same way they use them on the ground," he said.

For U.S. carriers, the use of cell phones for voice is a moot point since the application is banned on U.S. flights. However, the Federal Communications Commission has approved the use of broadband, without VOIP services, on planes. The ability to find a Wi-Fi connection on a U.S. plane opens Internet connections for not only laptops and smart phones but also for the increasing number of Wi-Fi equipped gadgets.