EU to allow passengers cellphone calls on flights

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For a decade, the French author and comic Phil Marso has been fighting a losing battle against the ubiquity of jangling mobile phones. He even tried to promote a cellphone-free day in February titled "A Day without blah blah."

Not that anybody noticed.

Monsieur Marso, fasten your seat belt.

British Airways: This article, published in Thursday's Business section, incorrectly refers to British Airways as British Airlines.

The European Commission just issued new rules that pave the way for in-flight mobile phone use across Europe. It took three years of hearings and negotiations, and pressure from business travelers, airlines and manufacturers of new in-flight mobile phone systems, but Europe now has a uniform code to match up technical and licensing requirements across borders.

There are other bureaucratic obstacles, but some airlines are already liberating customers itching to check for messages.

Viviane Reding, the European commissioner in charge of telecommunications, said in a statement that the new rules were created to benefit the 90% of European air passengers who carry mobile phones but "especially for those business travelers who need to be ready to communicate wherever they are, wherever they go."

But Reding warned that calls, which will be offered as a service from airlines, "will not take off" if the price of a call was too high or if it came at too high a cost to the mood inside the cabin.

"We don't believe it's for the commission to regulate human behavior," said Martin Selmayr, Reding's spokesman. "So just like some airlines offer nothing but a sandwich and others a three-course lunch, some will enforce limitations and others will allow a free-for-all."

Airlines have been weighing how to offer the new service. Among the ideas under consideration: mobile-free sections of the aircraft, or use at limited points in the flight.

All phones will have to be switched off during takeoff and landing, and will not operate over countries such as the United States that prohibit passengers from using their cellphones in mid-flight.

"The airlines could ban it during long flights so you can get some sleep," said Selmayr, adding, with a chuckle, "or, heaven forbid, during lunch."

To ensure that passengers' calls and messaging don't interfere with the airplane equipment, they will be linked to the ground through a mini cellular network stored in an overhead luggage compartment.

The network is designed to create an area of coverage in the aircraft that connects, via a satellite, to mobile networks on the ground. Cellular phone companies are expected to establish roaming charges just as they do for calls outside customers' home service areas. The European Commission will not regulate those charges, but Reding has vowed to keep an eye on prices.

To ensure that the captain and flight attendants remain in control of the chatter, they will be able to flick a switch to turn off voice calls -- limiting passengers to e-mail and text messages -- or shut down the system entirely.

The "blah-blah" can't get too intense if only because of technical reasons: The mini network only allows 10 to 12 voice calls at one time, Selmayr said.

Air France and the budget airline Ryanair have the technology in place to test the market. In June, Ryanair is introducing mobile phone use in 20 aircraft operating out of one of its European bases, according to a company spokesman, who said: "We're not disclosing which base, but if it works we'll roll it out toward the end of summer across all the fleet."

Since December, Air France has offered the service for text messages and e-mail on its A-318, a 123-seat aircraft used for its European flights.

On April 2, the airline hit the switch for voice calls, spokeswoman Marina Tymen said.

"With caviar and nice French wine, stretched out on a lounge, our first-class customers can now use their BlackBerrys," she said. (The service is also available in economy class).

But how will Air France handle new forms of "air rage" that might emerge if customers can't bring themselves to turn off their BlackBerrys?

"This is the job of the crew, to help the passengers," Tymen said. "These are human beings and they have to learn how to behave on board with their mobiles."

Air France is proceeding cautiously with the service, she said, and is awaiting the results of a questionnaire for A-318 customers that will help the airline decide what to offer and to whom. This summer, after analyzing the survey results, the company will decide how to extend the service on all flights.

Other airlines seem reluctant to jump in.

When asked whether British Airlines had applied to British telecom authorities for a license, a company spokeswoman said: "We haven't applied for anything. We're researching what our frequent fliers might want. But an initial view is that it just might be possible to allow texting, but not actual voice calls."

Germany's Lufthansa is also not in a hurry. The company's priority is reinstituting broadband connectivity on long-haul flights, which it had until Boeing stopped providing the service two years ago, spokesman Michael Lamberty said.

After hearing customers' concerns about a chatterbox in the next seat, Lufthansa decided "we didn't want to be the first to offer this service," Lamberty said. "If we or our public have a change of heart, it would be a piece of cake to add this feature to the broadband system."

Simon Warburton, editor of Air & Business Travel News, said his staff had contemplated scenarios with hundreds of people, crammed into a confined space but let loose with their cellphones. "A lot of people say they want this service," he said. "But I wonder, will they really want it after a few months?"

In the fall, the International Airline Passengers Assn. sent surveys to 3,000 frequent fliers about phone use in the air.

"The overwhelming conclusion," the group said, is that it would be "a source of great irritation."

But French author Marso is preparing for what he sees as the inevitable. He was busy last week mulling over what would make the most annoying ring tones to hear on a plane. His nominees include babies crying, dogs barking and, of course, that low-hanging fruit of comedy, flatulence.

"Planes were the last place you could preserve a secret garden from the outside world," Marso said. "Now even that's over."

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