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Captive Audience

DW staff (jg)April 7, 2008

Airlines in Germany have reacted coolly to approval by the European Commission on Monday of technology allowing air passengers to text and make calls on their mobile phones in mid-air.

Airborne plane with condensation trail
The skies above Europe may soon be alive with the sound of ringtonesImage: dpa

The European Commision on Monday, April 7, cleared the way for airlines to introduce technology that would allow passengers to use their mobile phones in mid-air, but leading carriers in Germany said they would not be offering the service.

The aim of the EU is to create a pan-European framework for mobile communications on aircraft, so passengers can make and receive calls, text messages and use e-mail with their own cell phones.

Calls will still be banned during take-off and landing and allowed only once a plane reached 3,000 meters in altitude.

"People don't want to be disturbed"

Two of Germany's biggest airlines, Lufthansa and Air Berlin, said Monday they weren't in favor of the new in-flight service.

Jan Baerwalde, spokesman for Lufthansa, said a poll had revealed that passengers rejected the facility and that the airline had no plans to introduce mobile capability.

Passengers on a plane
Not everyone would like to be party to fellow passengers' conversations

"People don't want to be disturbed," he told German news agency DPA, adding that Lufthansa instead planned to expand on its existing on-board broad-band Internet capacity.

A spokeswoman for Air Berlin, Germany's second largest airline, also ruled out mid-air mobile phone calls.

"It would be seen as a disturbance," Alexandra Mueller said. "There would be an impossible ringing on board."

British Airways too was reserved in its reaction to the new EU plans, with a spokeswoman suggesting it "could devalue the travel experience."

This, indeed, is a concern shared by many. In a bus or train, you can at least usually move to a quieter spot, if you want to escape a noisy neighbor. In the air, you could be trapped for hours, forced to endure the painful sound of private lives being made public: a truly nightmarish scenario.

In the United States, aviation authorities have ruled out the use of mobile phones on planes. There resistance is chiefly born out of fears that it could interfere with the controls of a plane.

Standardized technology across the EU

Other airlines however were much more upbeat about the new mobile capability. Air France, Ryanair and BMI are already holding trials or have plans to make an in-flight phone service available.

Outside Europe, Emirates last month became the first airline to enable mobile voice services on flights.

Under the European system, passengers' phone calls would go through an on-board cellular network linked to the ground via satellite, allowing mobiles to transmit less powerfully and avoid possible interference. The system will simultaneously prevent phones from connecting directly with base stations on the ground below.

The European Commission backing means planes registered in one EU country would be able to offer mobile communications services to passengers when flying over other EU countries without having to apply for additional national licences. The EU's 27 member states have six months to comply with the new rules.

Mid-air calls could be pricey

Viviane Reding, the EU's telecommunications commissioner, welcomed the advantages of the move. But at the same time, she warned operators to keep the cost of calls made on aircraft at a reasonable level.

A woman makes a call on her mobile phone
It might be easier on the wallet to make calls on the ground rather than in mid-airImage: picture-alliance / KPA/Hlavacek, Sava

"In-flight mobile phone services can be a very interesting new service especially for those business travellers who need to be ready to communicate wherever they are, wherever they go," she said in a statement.

"However, if consumers receive shock phone bills, the service will not take off," Reding said. "I also call on airlines and operators to create the right conditions on board aircraft to ensure that those who want to use in-flight communication services do not disturb other passengers," she added.