EU to Allow Cell-Phone Use on Airplanes

You can use your cell phone in the skies over Europe as early as this summer under new European Union rules — allowing travelers to stay in touch but also raising the cringe-inducing prospect of being stuck next to a chatterbox at 30,000 feet.

Announcing the guidelines Monday, EU officials said they expect several Europe-based airlines to move within the next few months to launch services, effectively making the 27-nation bloc the first region in the world to scrap bans on the use of cell phones in the sky.

They insisted that the new rules would not heighten the risk of terrorism or interfere with flight instruments, explaining the system, relying on European GSM technology, has been thoroughly tested and safeguards will be enacted against the terror threat.

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The United States and many other countries ban the use of cell phones and other mobile devices in the air because of concern they could disrupt a plane's instruments.

Travelers expressed fears about another kind of disruption: Noisy passengers.

"If they use a mobile phone on long distance flights, it would be an inconvenience, especially at night," said train commuter Stein Smulders, from Halle, Belgium.

Airlines and EU officials said the security risk will be minimized because the system will not connect inflight phones directly to the ground — instead using an onboard base station to link up to a satellite and then to ground networks.

"It has to go through a central onboard cellular network that can be switched off by the captain at any moment, so that enhances the security of the passengers," said EU spokesman Martin Selmayr.

He added that for safety and security concerns the phone services will not be available during takeoff, landing or during turbulence.

Francoise Humbert, from the Association of European Airlines, which represents over 30 European carriers, said the network had been "very rigorously tested" and would not interfere with the aircraft's communication and navigation systems.

The installation of base stations on the plane allows calls to directly target a satellite system, preventing mobile phones from wreaking havoc with flight instruments or ground networks by sending out signals indiscriminately.

Mobile phone users will be allowed to turn their phones on after the plane reaches 10,000 feet, when other electronic devices such as portable music players and laptops are permitted.

Monday's decision was welcomed by airlines — some of which like Air France-KLM have already launched a trial of in-flight phone services on some European routes.

Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, said the United States has no immediate plans to remove its ban.

The new freedoms pose new pricing and etiquette questions.

Selmayr said EU regulators would be keeping a close eye on the airlines and phone operators to make sure they set fair rates for the service. But he acknowledged that making a call at 10,000 feet will be more pricey than those made on the ground.

"We understand there is an additional cost because you need to route these services via the onboard cellular network and there is some investment that has to be made," Selmayr said.

He did not give any cost comparisons.

British Midland Airways Ltd., also known as bmi; Portugal's TAP, and low-cost airline Ryanair are also planning to offer services later this year.

Dubai-based Emirates Airlines introduced its in-flight phone services last month on its Dubai to Casablanca route, but limits the number of calls passengers can make and bars calls during night flights.

The EU also urged airlines to set in-flight etiquette rules to ensure a balance between those wanting to make calls and others who in need of a few hours of quiet-time.

German airline Lufthansa said Monday it does not plan to introduce the service because a majority of its customers saw no need for phone calls during flights. Surveys have shown that a large majority of customers were against it, Lufthansa spokesman Jan Baerwalde said.

"People don't want to be disturbed," Baerwalde said.

Lufthansa will, however, look at providing fast Internet access on its planes, a service it already offered from 2004 until the end of 2006. The airline is currently looking for a new service partner to reintroduce the service.

The Association of European Airlines said airlines would inevitably set conditions on use to avoid in-flight flare ups between passengers.

"There will be conditions of course because other passengers should not be inconvenienced by this possibility so there will be guidelines," said spokeswoman Francoise Humbert.

Such rules were welcomed by travelers in Rome.

"I think it can be helpful if it will be fairly ruled, avoiding abuses," said Antonio Bilancia, a traveler in Rome.