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Association of Corporate Travel Executives

Airborne cell service for Europe has strong implications for US

An announcement by Airbus that European passengers will soon be able to use cellphones and Blackberry devices in flight may give business travelers flying on aircraft built by the Toulouse-based manufacturer a major…

An announcement by Airbus that European passengers will soon be able to use cellphones and Blackberry devices in flight may give business travelers flying on aircraft built by the Toulouse-based manufacturer a major boost in productivity, and a marketing advantage to carriers that offer the service.



According to a statement issued by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives` (ACTE), enhanced in-flight communication services are coming and it`s time to start shaping them now, while they are in the developmental stage.



Two years ago, ACTE President Greeley Koch testified before Congress that in-flight cell phone service — and internet access — would be introduced to the traveling public in the near future, said Susan Gurley, the association`s Executive Director. Opposition to In-flight cell phone service in the United States cited every conceivable objection to the program, including increased cabin noise and disruption, security concerns, and possible interference with navigational instruments. Apparently, Airbus and European authorities are confident they can introduce an enhanced in-flight communication package without compromising passenger comfort, safety or security.



Airbus stated that passengers will be able to make and take calls, as well as send and receive text or e-mail messages using its global system for mobile communications (GSM), which has received the backing of the European Aviation Safety Agency. Yet as an added option to preserve quiet in the cabin, crews will have the ability to switch off the voice mode permitting only text messaging and e-mail services. OnAir, a joint venture of Airbus and industry information-technology body SITA, will be the service provider for a range of connectivity services.



An ACTE poll on in-flight cell phone service indicated our US membership was divided on the subject, with a slight majority, 52 percent, in favor of the service. Yet that figure jumped to 97 percent when presented with the option of internet access through Blackberries or laptops. Clearly there is the possibility here to establish a more acceptable `type don`t talk` cabin communications policy, said Gurley.



ACTE`s Executive Director disagrees with some industry experts who feel there is an insufficient market for an enhanced airborne communications package. Just five years ago, hotels were debating the wisdom of investing in WiFi. Now high-speed internet access is regarded as essential as running water in a hotel room. And properties that charge for it earn a bit of resentment, said Gurley. Eventually the same will be true for in-flight cell service and internet access. Ignoring the subject not only deprives travelers of an option, but it wastes critical product development time.



The decision to make in-flight cell service a reality rests with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States. The FCC ended a three-year proceeding to lift the cell ban in March of 2007, based on the determination that there was insufficient information as to whether the use of wireless devices on aircraft would disrupt wireless installations on the ground. At present, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also bans the in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference with avionics.



The FCC has approved rules that allow in-flight voice and data services using dedicated air-to-ground frequencies, such as those previously used for seat-back telephones.



In addition to providing a needed service for the traveler, there is a potential source of revenue for the airlines as well, said Gurley. One could easily see travel managers negotiating the cost of an enhanced in-flight communications program into the price of a ticket. And this could eventually become the kind of useful perk for travelers when the price of fuel makes frequent flyer benefits too steep.

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