Australian teens will be pleased to hear that later this year Qantas will allow passengers to send and receive text messages and e-mails on domestic flights. Voice calls will not be permitted, but passengers will be able to tap away to their heart's content.
The decision follows a nine-month trial using a single aircraft. During the trial, which ended in January, Qantas gauged passenger reaction to in-flight texting and determined whether the technology interfered with the aircraft's systems. Clearly, the trial must have gone well, now that Qantas has decided to expand the program to a number of Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 aircraft.
Dubai-based Emirates also conducted a texting trial last year, but the airline has gone a huge step further by becoming the first commercial airline to allow voice calls while aloft. According to the BBC, after Emirates allowed calls on a recent flight from Dubai to Casablanca, the airline now plans to add the service to other aircraft in its fleet. The calls don't operate through normal cellular signals; cell phone towers can't reach 30,000 feet into the air. But they will operate through a satellite system that connects to receiving equipment on board the airplane. As such, you can expect that calls will be expensive, at least $2 per minute.
If the idea of your fellow passengers yakking away makes you nervous, you'll be glad to know that Emirates will impose restrictions on the service. The cabin crew will activate the satellite receiver equipment only after the aircraft is at cruising altitude. What's more, the cabin crew will be able to prevent calls at certain times, such as during red-eye flights. If you'd rather not talk, you can stick with texting, and in the future you may be able to use your phone's data service as well.
Back in the United States, the FAA shows no signs of budging from its in-flight cell phone ban. Though debate continues on whether cell phone actually interfere with aircraft navigation and communication systems--a MythBusters episode suggested that they do not--I'm comfortable with the FAA taking its time.