14/05/2012 15:53 | By Duncan Jefferies, contributor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Virgin Atlantic enables in-flight mobile calls

As Virgin Atlantic gives the green light to in-flight calls, how long before mile-high mobiles are commonplace?


Among the many and varied banes of modern life, high up on the list of shame are those idiots who jabber into their mobile phones at Foghorn Leghorn volume. They are an unfortunate side effect of technological progress, like people who text while you're talking to them or teenagers who feel compelled to sonically assault their surroundings with Blackberry-filtered dub-step.

These acute suffers of I'm On A Train syndrome make journeys by public transport roughly a million times more irritating. The volume knob in their brain seems stuck on max. To them, other passengers are the equivalent of non-playable characters in video games - there to be either abused or ignored.

Virgin Atlantic is to enable the use of mobile phones on its aircraft (© Virgin Atlantic)

Few areas of life have remained immune from the boorish mooing of these loud-mouthed sociopaths, but flights were one of them. Until now.

First call
Virgin Atlantic has announced that passengers on its planes will soon be able to make and receive phone calls while in the air. At first the new service will only be available on flights from London to New York. But, by the end of 2012, nearly 20 of Sir Richard Branson's aircraft, operating on at least 10 different routes, will let you make calls from 30,000 feet.

It's not hard to see the appeal of the service. Your brain usually pings back an answer to the nagging thought "what did I forget to do before boarding the plane?" seconds after the wheels have left the tarmac. The chance to make a call in-flight would make it possible to arrange for someone to feed the cat straight away, rather than after you've dozed through an eight-hour flight haunted by dreams of a starving, saucer-eyed Chairman Miaow.

If your flight is running late, being able to phone from the air to let friends or family know will also prevent tantrums at the arrival gate. And if you're on a business trip, you won't have 50-odd emails to wade through when you land - you can whittle them down between the in-flight drinks and snacks.

However, if you're the person stuck next to Bertie Bigmouth, the guy calling every single person in his phone book to say: "Guess where I am...guess!...nope...try again...nope...nope...nope...close...nope...nope...give up? I'm on a plane!" you'll probably long for the days when a flight meant several hours' escape from mobile phone menaces.

How it will work
There will still be some respite from mobile phone chuntering. Passengers won't be able to make any calls during take off or landing and, due to US laws, in-flight call services must be turned off around 250 miles from US airspace. However, for most of the flight everyone will be free to natter away just as if they were on the ground.

Text messages, emails and GPRS web access will also be allowed under Virgin Atlantic's new service. But only customers with 02 or Vodafone, who will be billed at roughly the same rate as normal international roaming charges, can currently take advantage of it.

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Virgin Atlantic says it is the first British airline to provide passengers with an in-flight call service. However, Ryanair offered its own version back in 2009, installed on 20 of its aircraft, with calls costing up to £3 per minute, emails £1 and texts 40p. Originally, there were plans to extend the service. But the deal with OnAir, that supplied it, came to an end in 2010.

BMI has kitted out some of its planes to allow for in-flight texting, but not calls. British Airways also allows in-flight texts and web access on a single route between London City Airport and New York. Nine other foreign carriers, including Qantas, Emirates and Lufthansa, also offer an AeroMobile service.

Sky-high internet
The next step for airlines is full wi-fi access in the air. The technology for this has actually been around for more almost a decade: Connexion, a service from Boeing, used satellites and special receivers on-board the aircraft to provide internet access. But the airline industry slump after the events of 9/11 and a lack of passenger interest meant it was shut down in 2006.

In America you can get online today while in the air by logging onto Gogo, which works through mobile phone base stations, rather than satellites. But prices are high and passengers have yet to fully embrace the service. It also works only over land.

A new project called Global Xpress could provide global in-flight wi-fi coverage in future. A trio of new satellites are due to be launched from 2013 and speeds of up to 50Mbps are promised. But, as anyone who's forked out for a high-speed internet package will know, promised speeds don't always equal actual speeds.

In future you might be able to use your gadgets and mobile devices at any time during a flight. Although many airlines suggest that fiddling with your phone during take off will cause the plane to belly-flop back to earth, aviation experts are still debating what effect gadgets actually have on onboard communication systems. It's a ban that may therefore be eventually lifted.

USB charging ports could also become commonplace on planes, as airlines try to encourage us to use our own mobile devices for in-flight entertainment. You might even be able to download the in-flight movie selection on your smartphone or tablet and continue watching on the ground.

Planely, a Danish company, has devised a platform for on-board social networking between passengers. And some airlines have been experimenting with "Social Seating" features that let people choose who they'll be sat next to based on similar social profiles. But if in-flight phone calls catch on, then the most requested feature for planes of the future will probably be one that's found in many of today's trains: the quiet cabin.

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