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Airline officials are contemplating banning more electronic devices from in-flight use. Why is that, exactly?

1Dec

In August 1959, Pan American Airlines
began offering nonstop service from New York's Idlewild
airport to London's Heathrow. By all accounts, the
transatlantic trip — which took about seven and a half
hours on a Boeing 707-320 — was a testament to comfort,
sophistication, and gracious traveling.


It's been downhill ever since (see "Flying the
Unfriendly Skies
"). While the air speed of jets
has increased in the succeeding four decades, the
increase in air traffic has offset those gains. What's more,
the airline industry's Shriners-like knack for cramming
lots of people into undersized vehicles has turned a
once-glamorous means of transportation into the modern
equivalent of a cattle drive.


Business travelers have been mostly able to block out
lousy conditions and disappearing amenities by focusing
on work or listening to their playlists. But now, even that
appears under threat. While the Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) currently prohibits the use of cellular
phones during flights, additional devices are starting to
make it into the no-fly zone. Notably, in August, British
officials banned passengers from carrying notebook
computers (as well as iPods, PDAs, and portable DVD
players) onto flights originating in the UK. That move
came on the heels of decisions by Korean Air and Qantas
Airways to restrict the use of Dell, Apple, and Sony
laptops — and their potentially combustible batteries.


Airline-passenger groups hailed the restrictions,
arguing that air safety supersedes issues of convenience.
Business travelers may be less enthused. Forrester
Research reckons that 81 percent of business travelers
have portable DVD players, while about 45 percent own
laptops. Throw in the number of executives who carry
company-provided notebooks and that percentage probably
doubles.


Statistics like that have some analysts doubting that the
FAA will follow the UK's lead by ordering outright bans
on electronic devices. An airline that preemptively prohibits
or restricts the devices could lose customers. Says
Henry Harteveldt, principal travel analyst with Forrester
Research in San Francisco: "If business travelers can't travel
on a certain airline with a laptop, they'll say buh-bye."



Altitude Adjustment


So why are airline and transportation officials
making noises about the dangers of
in-flight electronics? Concerns about
safety top the list. Anecdotal evidence
does suggest that mobile phones may — may — produce some minor disturbances
to global positioning systems and ground
tower equipment.


Of course, at 30,000 feet, no disturbance
is minor. Still, definitive evidence of
electromagnetic interference is hard to
find. The FAA is scheduled to release a
study this month on the impact of mobile
telephony on aircraft avionics, but the
research will not likely reveal any great
dangers. One possible bug: at higher altitudes,
cell phones tend to switch to a higher
signal-hunting power. This problem
could be alleviated by restricting in-flight
cell phone use to phones with airplane
modes. Such phones are set to cease hunting
for a signal at a specified altitude.


Many travel, telephony, and security
analysts insist there are few good reasons
for banning electronic devices on planes.
Security consultant Bruce Schneier says
he doesn't understand the assertion that
electronic gadgets like notebook computers
pose a security hazard on a plane. "What, because you can use your laptop
to hit someone over the head?" he quips.


Indeed, some observers wonder if airline
operators have ulterior motives for
sounding alarms about the safety of electronic
gadgets. It's a fair question. The fact
is, airline profitability often hinges on the
ability of a carrier to add 2 cents of revenue
per mile per passenger. As any CFO knows,
it's easier to wring more cash out of existing
customers than to win new ones. Certainly,
offering proprietary or third-party
in-air telephony services would satisfy the
demand of travelers to stay connected. And
make no mistake, that demand is huge. One survey found that, if permitted, 94
percent of business travelers would take
calls and check E-mail during flights.


Currently, one domestic airline, Jet
Blue, is developing technology that enables
passengers to use cell phones and notebook
wireless cards while flying. Telephony
companies OnAir and AirCell are
developing similar services. OnAir's product
will be available in the next few
months on some flights on three airlines,
including Air France. UK carrier Ryanair's
entire fleet will be equipped with mobile
telephony offerings by next summer. AirCell plans to roll out its Wi-Fi service
aboard American-based airlines in 2008.


The company will face little competition. This month, Boeing is shutting down
its much-trumpeted Connexion by Boeing
in-flight broadband service, citing lack of
demand. On the face of it, that would seem
to punch holes in the theory that business
travelers want in-flight cell and Internet
service. But it may simply be a matter of
price: so far, vendors have not been able to
deliver in-flight communication services at
a reasonable rate.


OnAir CEO George Cooper says the
charge for the company's service will be in
line with international roaming rates. AirCell, too, promises prices comparable to
ground-based Wi-Fi costs. Dan O'Shea,
editor of industry publication Telephony
Online,
isn't convinced. He speculates the
connection fees will be close to $2.50 a
minute — still high.


Until prices drop, many business travelers
will try to find workarounds. The obvious answer seems to be Internet-based phone systems. Some executives already use Skype software
on their notebooks to place in-flight
Internet calls to other Skype users for free.
Calls to traditional landline and mobile
phones via the Skype protocol cost
between 1 cent and $1.39 per minute,
depending on where you call.


Other business travelers have opted
for easier fixes. Surveys indicate that a
small percentage of business travelers
simply refuse to turn off their mobile
devices after takeoff. One CFO acknowledges
that she doesn't shut off her Blackberry
when she travels. Instead, the
finance chief, who flew 100,000 miles last
year, uses the PDA to update her E-mail
whenever she can get a connection.
"Traveling over certain cities at certain
heights you can often get a signal," says
the CFO. "You'd be surprised what you
can get over Denver."


Arrested, for one thing.



Elaine Appleton Grant writes about business from Strafford, New Hampshire.

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