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Germany

Germany Calling, From 30,000 Feet

Cell phone emissions may not be as bad for on-board electronics as regulators once thought, according to Lufthansa officials, who conducted tests on the issue. But government officials are not convinced.

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Don't pack that -- you'll want it on the plane

"I couldn't call, I was on the plane," won't be an excuse anymore if the results of recent research and future tests convince lawmakers to make airplanes cell-phone friendly.

Earlier this week, Lufthansa and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) announced the test results showing that even using emissions 25 times stronger than regular cell phones caused "no complications" to plane systems.

But the findings aren't likely to be enough to persuade passengers to phone home -- all the research has been carried out on the ground. The first tests above the clouds are planned for the fall.

In any case, it's not science forcing people to pack away the cell phone, but rather politics: The German Transport Ministry, for example, hasn't been persuaded to change its federal aviation regulations based on the scientific evidence.

"We're not yet convinced of the safety of cellular radio waves," Felix Stenschke, a spokesman for the ministry, told reporters.

A jail sentence for talkers

Airbus A300

Even miles high in the sky your boss can still reach you.

As a precautionary measure, the German government introduced a law prohibiting the use of cell flights between boarding and disembarking. Anyone caught making a call on a plane while in flight faces steep penalties, including up to two years in jail.

Other countries aren't so extreme. Passengers on the US carrier Delta Air Lines can talk as long as the plane is docked to the airport, and United Airlines even allows conversations on board before takeoff and after landing.

Until aviation policy is changed, Nokia and Sony Ericsson are the best choice for people who can't stand to be disconnected. The two cell phone manufacturers have designed technology that allows the reception of incoming data, but not the sending of it. Thus a passenger could only answer a call coming from the ground, but not call people. The phones aren't officially approved for in-flight use but they are usually "tolerated," according to Michael Lamberty, a Lufthansa spokesman.

Other in-flight options

Passagiere an Bord einer Concorde der British Airways

Passengers on the defunct Concorde would probably have liked to use cell phones

The DLR is also heading up an international project for the European Commission called Wireless Cabin. Along with Airbus, Ericsson, Italy's Telecommunicationi, Siemens, the University of Bradford, and several other companies, the German aeronautic team aims to use satellites to relay information to and from a communications system installed on planes and a base station that distributes the data on the ground.

The plane's on-board system would mean the "cell phones in the plane would emit noticeably less power," Erich Lutz, head of DLR's digital networks department, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He added that he believes the technology will be ready for use in about two years.

But Lufthansa passengers won't be completely out of touch for the next two years. Last May, the company introduced FlyNet, which gives passengers a broad-band, wireless Internet connection. The service is currently only available on flights between Munich and Los Angeles, and Munich and Tokyo, but Lamberty said Lufthansa plans to outfit all its long-distance planes with broadband connections by the summer of 2006.

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