Mid-air mobile madness

Initial reports on inflight mobile services suggest the technology has some obstacles to overcome, but airlines don't seem to have considered the human elements either

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By  Mark Sutton Published  April 22, 2008

There are many things can turn a flight into a nightmare. Screaming babies, overly talkative fellow travelers, people who can't stop playing with their seat and passengers with persistent coughs are all liable to test the patience, but there is one inflight menace that seems to have united commentators around the world in howls of ‘No!' - the prospect of inflight mobile phone calls.

The Middle East is leading the way in introducing this controversial service, with a number of airlines going live with limited deployments of the technology. But while blogs, online forums and old media letters pages are full of people complaining about inflight mobile, while quietly admitting that ‘yes, inflight SMS would be helpful, and maybe web access too' the initial reports on the service so far don't sound too promising.

According to a New York Times report on Air France's trials, the service bordered on the unusable. Air France is testing equipment from OnAir, the leader in the segment, which has deals with many of the Middle East's carriers. (The NYT story is available here although it requires registration with their site).

The Air France trial could only connect six calls at a time, was unable to receive incoming calls, had trouble connecting outgoing calls, couldn't connect to Blackberry services and had poor voice quality overall. While OnAir hopes to up the number of connections to twelve simultaneous calls at once, that's still not a lot among 300 passengers on an average aircraft, let alone the 500-800 capacity of the Airbus A380.

Will these teething problems kill off this dreaded menace before it starts? I don't think so, although its quite possible that ‘sorry, I couldn't get a signal' will become a regular excuse for not taking that call from the boss while in flight. More than likely the technology problems will be sorted out, but that still leaves the ‘social' problems of inflight mobile, and whether you really want to have to listen to someone else's mobile call for duration of your journey.

Not all airlines are racing to embrace the technology - Lufthansa says it won't deploy it - but I suspect that for some business travelers it will soon be expected of them that they fly with an airline that lets them stay in touch. But so far I haven't heard any convincing operating strategies from the airlines that will allow mobile users to connect without annoying other passengers.

Some airlines say they will turn the service on or off at certain times or limit the number of calls each passenger can make - but business travelers won't want to have to try and fit all of their business into five or six calls, or be told they can't speak to Tokyo as they currently should be having ‘nap time'.

‘Dialing' and ‘no-dialing' sections of seating might work if the technology could be adapted, although it would probably end up like smoking sections on aircraft that used to fill up with ‘non-smoking' passengers who'd just nip back for a quick cigarette. Aside from blocking the aisles, this also made the smoking section even more polluted, particularly for any non-smoker who could only get a smoking seat.

The service perhaps could be restricted to a very small area around the galley or maybe even sound-proofed cubicles - we could call them ‘phone boxes' - but that would kill any freedom and flexibility of having a mobile, and we are all so used to having our own personal connection when we want that I don't think we would have the patience to wait for other people.

The most useful services would be inflight SMS, email and Internet access. The first two should be priority for airlines, rather than focusing on voice services which may be financially promising, but are bound to cause problems among passengers. Internet access is another technology challenge, especially in terms of managing bandwidth-hogging applications, but is also a service that would be much more useful than voice.

Long term, I believe we will all just learn to accommodate inflight mobile use in the same way that we are used to it almost everywhere else. But spare a though for the poor road warriors, who will no doubt look back fondly on the days when having to prepare a PowerPoint on an overnight flight was a real pain, but at least the boss couldn't keep phoning every five minutes with last minute changes...

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