The results of Air France's in-flight cell phone study are coming in, and The New York Times is reporting that the feedback isn't good. Poor sound quality, long waits for a connection, and shaky signals appear to be the norm. But even worse, only six passengers at a time can get a signal in order to avoid interfering with the aircraft's equipment.
According to the newspaper, one passenger had to wait a few minutes for the signal to pass between the antenna in the plane, a satellite, and the receiver on the ground. And even when he got a connection, the poor volume and voice quality prompted his caller to compare the conversation to "talking to a small robot." On a flight between Paris and Vienna, passengers had to try a few times to call the ground, while calls made from the ground to the air tended to go to voice mail, the paper said. Also, BlackBerry users were not able to send and receive e-mail.
Though I'm sure the kinks will be worked out, so far it sounds not worth the trouble, particularly considering the galling $4.72 (3 euros) per-minute charge. But Air France isn't the only airline toying with cell phone use while aloft. Qantas allows only texting on certain aircraft, and Ryanair said it is mulling in-flight calls as well. Emirates said it has already allowed voice calls on some flights and that it will expand the service to other aircraft in its fleet. Like the Air France system, the in-flight calls use a satellite system to connect with the ground. Existing cell phone towers can't reach 39,000 feet.
Back in the United States, the FCC is sticking with its ban on cell phone use, and last week a bill introduced into the House of Representatives bill proposed outlawing it outright. This is one area in the cell phone world where I'm quite happy for the United States to lag behind Europe.