Canada, USA keep hanging up on in-flight cell phones

Canadian and US regulators remain a stubborn bunch when it comes to in-flight cell phone usage – they just don’t want it, can’t see needing it, and insist that travellers abhor the prospect of such chatter in the sacrosanct cabin environment. Oh yeah, and some of them think it might be dangerous too. For heaven’s sakes! It’s mind-boggling that North America continues to drag its feet on this issue. We look like a bunch of ninnies when Europe and the Middle East are figuring ways through the social and technological issues associated with using cell phones during flight.

Sure there have been hiccups along the way. The UK’s Sunday Times is running a fairly comprehensive piece about how Air France passengers haven’t had the most robust connectivity during a trial of OnAir’s service. But you can be sure that these trouble-spots will be resolved, and where will North America be? Still scare-mongering about potential interruption to aircraft avionics? Still claiming that chatty-Kathy passengers will drive other travellers to the brink of rage?

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Further evidence that North America is nearly stagnant on the issue has emerged in recent weeks. In the USA, Congressmen Peter DeFazio, Jerry Costello and John Duncan held a press conference to announce the “HANG UP Act”, which would ban passengers from talking on cell phones abroad US airlines. Both the US Federal Communications Commission and the FAA already ban this activity and have refused to budge on regulations governing it. So these lawmakers are suggesting that we ban something that has already been banned? Now that’s rich. The legislation came on the heels of an announcement by the European Union that they will eliminate the ban on cell phones onboard aircraft.

At the same time, Canadian regulators are considering loosening rules that prohibit passengers from making cell phone calls after the aircraft has landed and is taxiing to its gate (like what other countries have been doing for years). Amazingly, however, Transport Canada remains unconvinced that the in-flight use of cell phones or Blackberry-like devices are safe “There is always a risk of potential interference” to aircraft avionics, says a spokesman.

While not keen on cell phones in-flight, the USA is moving forward with trials of WiFi-based services. Aircell recently became the first communications operator to receive approvals from the FAA to provide air-to-ground (ATG) in-flight mobile broadband for US domestic flights. The Colorado-based firm plans to roll out its service – branded Gogo – to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean as soon as possible in 2009 but for now, its focus remains on the US launch.

But the WiFi path that Canada might travel remains unclear. The pending proposed notice about cell phones will likely prompt this discussion, says the Transport Canada spokesman.

(Photo from Air France’s web site at www.airfrance.com )

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