A move to cell phones in flight would mean the death of the built-in aircraft phones that never proved very profitable for the airlines. Travelers avoided the fees of $3 to $6 per minute, and airlines said the in-flight phones were added weight that increased fuel costs. Delta Air Lines has removed the phones from all of its planes. American has taken the phones off all domestic routes. "For the amount of times people used them, they just weren't worth it," said Delta spokeswoman Benet Wilson.
No change in the airline rules on cell phones is likely for at least a couple of years. Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission must approve cell phone use on planes. The FAA is awaiting results of a study, due in December 2006, on whether the phones interfere with navigational equipment.
Qualcomm's Irwin Jacobs demonstrates cell technology on an American Airlines flight.
(Donna Mcwilliam -- AP)
Pilots and flight attendants have reported 76 incidents since 1999 in which portable electronic devices may have interfered with navigational systems, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Many of the cases involved an unruly passenger who refused to abide by cell phone restrictions. Other incidents occurred when pilots received faulty instrument warnings and later discovered that a passenger was using a cell phone. Cell phone transmissions can create electromagnetic fields that warp operation of nearby devices.
Beyond the safety concerns, cell phone service may not be great at high altitudes. At 30,000 feet a phone may have difficulty sending a signal to a tower on the ground. Most cell phones can't reach a station from beyond 10,000 feet, said Roger Entner, an analyst with research firm Ovum Ltd.
Another technical hurdle is to find a way that cell phone calls would be handed off from one cell tower to another on the ground when the aircraft is traveling at 500 miles an hour. The handoff is fairly simple when the speaker is walking or driving, but at aircraft speed calls would likely be dropped.
Boeing and other companies are experimenting with a possible solution. Airlines could install a device called a picocell -- about the size of a smoke detector -- on each plane to collect all the cell phone calls on board and transmit them directly to a satellite or a base station designed just for in-flight calls. That would alleviate the problem of each cell phone caller needing to connect with towers on the ground, Entner said.
Some airlines, such as Lufthansa, already use a similar technology that allows passengers to connect to the Internet while in flight. Charles Engelke, of Macon, Ga., a frequent flier and computer software executive, said he doesn't like the idea of hearing his fellow passengers talk during a flight, but he would happily use the wireless connection on his laptop. "To be able to surf the Net and send e-mails would be fantastic," he said.
Staff writer Yuki Noguchi contributed to this report.