Phones on a Plane

Carl Weinschenk

Ever since the advent of Wi-Fi and the explosion in the number of cell phones, there has been significant interest in -- and concerns about -- the use of mobile devices on airplanes. The chatter slowed when one of the earlier initiatives, Boeing's Connexion, ceased operations. The arena appears to be heating up again, however.


Southwest Airlines will test satellite-based services from service provider Row 44, which already is supplying Alaska Airlines. Another big carrier, American Airlines, is installing Aircell Internet technology on one of its 15 Boeing 767-200 planes, acccording to The Dallas Morning News. Instead of using satellites, the Aircell, whose technology also is used by Virgin Air, sends signals to 92 cell towers in the continental U.S. In both cases, users will be able to use e-mail accounts and surf the Web, but VoIP and cell phone use will be prohibited.


Clearly, some people still have issues. Boeing is outfitting its new 787 with entertainment features that go far beyond what is allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration today. The company therefore has to get special permission and be in constant contact with the agency. So far, there are no problems.


The overall question the story confronts is whether it is possible to make the vital communications systems on a plane totally safe from hackers seeking to gain access through the entertainment systems. Well-known consultant Bruce Schneier, the CTO of BT Counterpane, say the chances of complete safety are nil. The comment appears to be a general conclusion that total safety is not humanly possible instead of an assessment of what Boeing, specifically, is doing. Competitor Airbus SAS has told the FAA that the only way to totally ensure safety is to physically separate the entertainment and vital systems areas. That is not feasible, the company says.


JetBlue also is testing Wi-Fi in the sky. The airline has partnered with Research in Motion and Yahoo to equip an Airbus A320, now tagged "BetaBlue," with Wi-Fi connectivity. Travelers will be able to use "lightweight" versions of Yahoo's e-mail and IM service, while owners of Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerry 8820s and BlackBerry Curve 8320s will have access to their corporate and personal e-mail accounts.


JetBlue has been working on the project for a while. In June, 2006, its LiveTV division won a 1 MHz air-to-ground wireless license that covers the continental U.S. above 10,000 feet. The story does a good job of describing the increasing technology-based entertainment technology available to air travelers and the hesitation surrounding communications services. "BetaBlue's" inaugural flight was slated for early December.


The FCC, according to this InformationWeek piece, is not close to allowing cell phones on airplanes. A report released earlier this month by Freesky Research makes the unsurprising assessment that the ban is hurting employee productivity. The story and report point out that Middle Eastern, Asian and European airlines allow such calls and that there is no evidence that cell phones interfere with aeronautical communications.


The back and forth between the government, safety advocates and those who do not relish the prospect of sitting next to somebody with a phone glued to their ear on a trans-continental flight on one side and service providers on the other will continue.


The fact remains, however, that mobile devices can be used on airplanes today. This is a useful posting describing what can and cannot be done with an iPhone when it is in airplane mode. There is no reason to think that other devices don't operate in a similar fashion. The blogger wrote that SMS messages can be read but not sent, photos can be viewed; YouTube, stocks, maps and weather features do not work; the clock, calculator and notes do work; iTunes does not work; phone features besides actual calling (access and manipulation of contacts, listening to stored voice mails, etc.) work; e-mail works except for transmission; and the Safari browser displays cached versions of sites that had been left open from previous viewing, though they disappear if the machine is turned off.

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