Are cell phone calls on airplane flights inevitable?

Frequent flyers can look forward to single-handed talking while they jet about – though, the industry says, the technology doesn’t exist yet Are cell phone calls on airplane flights inevitable? Call me “stupid” –…

Are cell phone calls on airplane flights inevitable?

Frequent flyers can look forward to single-handed talking while they jet about – though, the industry says, the technology doesn’t exist yet

Are cell phone calls on airplane flights inevitable?

Call me “stupid” – I’ve been on nearly 50 domestic flights and more than two dozen international flights since last February and I can’t bring myself to subject myself to two-person conversations while I’m trying to get some work done.

The industry insists cell phone services will not arrive for many years yet. But at one point in our conversation last week, an executive from one of the most powerful US companies displayed an uncanny ability to predict the arrival of what many view as the single most disruptive technology ever: Wi-Fi.

He turned to me and started waggling his finger:

“Oh, no, cell phone service isn’t coming in 18 months from now,” he said. “I can tell you that. It’s already there.”

He said it was twice, once over headphones and once face-to-face. He and his boss know each other well, and while I’m not privy to any privileged details about their working relationship, I wonder if the executive would be more convincing about the specter of losing me if he could just pull out the phones, call me and hear my voice.

Contrary to what many in the mobile industry have claimed, a few carriers do, in fact, have cell phone service installed in aircraft already, but they’re already restricting it. British Airways restricts on-board cell phone use to prearranged “agreements” between passengers.

The next generation of US carriers, like Hawaiian Airlines and Allegiant, let passengers only use their devices for WiFi or for selected features like browsing the internet, e-mail, chat or internet phone calls when they’re in the cabin. But for the most part, passengers don’t speak on their phones.

They’re also increasingly using these devices to check flight schedules and arrival times, route directions and stocks, to access or download movies, and to share their moods. Business travelers use phones as they would Blackberries and laptops to see where they’re going and check their calendar. It’s just smart.

So where do all these use cases fall? And how will it work when these passengers inevitably decide to chat – and when, and if, airline systems and operations make more of them need to make that call?

After I sat in his eyes, the businessman asked:

“No, there’s not cell phone service on the plane yet. They have some on the plane now. But it’s not coming. They’re having issues. The systems have to be upgraded, more networks have to be added and then they’ll be able to expand to this class of passengers. These are all in place. But they’re not there yet. And for all that time you’re sitting there on an airplane, it’s a problem.”

That lack of a crisis is generally found on the air travel industry: it takes time to implement new and complex technology and this technology wouldn’t exist until there was a real crisis for airlines.

The answer that the technology’s in place is a key part of the anti-cell-phone ad campaign. There is just not the critical mass or consumer demand or buzz for it yet.

It’s difficult to be definitive, though, because of the limitations of the equipment. Laptops are by far the most common and most common use, but with many laptops only capable of about 30 minutes of voice-only use, it’s tough to justify it. Do we really want our cell phone devices to spend so much time talking to one another that the remaining minutes and hours in a day, not to mention the time the devices take from sleep time, are probably better spent reading a book, hiking with nature – or maybe not using the Internet at all?

Until enough people opt in for these services, the airlines will continue to block this use. Imagine how different a model we’d have if people assumed they could binge on content and interact with friends in tandem.

But the tech, it seems, isn’t just a leap forward in terms of communication. It’s a leap forward in terms of our social interactions and identity as we continually collect and manage personal data. It’s a leap forward in terms of other interfaces, too. But this one – voice-enabled cell phone calls – will have to come.

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