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Senate silent on in-flight mobiles as FAA Reauthorisation passes

In-flight connectivity stakeholders are cautiously optimistic that a permanent federal ban on the airborne use of cell phones will not be enacted in the United States, after the US Senate passed FAA Reauthorisation legislation that is absent of the so-called Hang-Up Act.

"The Senate elected to be silent on the proposed ban. The full text of the Senate FAA Reauthorisation bill is clean. I've checked all the amendments and the amendments are also clean," confirms Carl Biersack, executive director of In-flight Passenger Communications Coalition (IPCC), a lobbying group established by in-flight mobile connectivity rivals AeroMobile and OnAir, and industry players Panasonic Avionics, Inmarsat and Rockwell Collins.

Debate over whether or not the in-flight use of cell phones should be permitted on commercial flights has been raging ever since US congressman Peter DeFazio in 2008 introduced the Hang-Up Act in the House of Representatives to ensure that the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ban remains in place.

DeFazio in a lengthy opinion piece for US News and World Report in August 2009 said: "Ringing cell phones and loud phone conversations will not only disturb and annoy fellow travellers but could result in arguments and fights at 30,000 feet, forcing flight attendants to serve as referees. Even worse, imagine a situation where 75 people are on their cell phones while flight attendants are trying to make a safety announcement, and they can't be heard over the din of conversation."

DeFazio's Hang-Up Act language, which would also permanently outlaw the use of in-flight voice over IP (VoIP), was passed by the House last year as part of its own version of FAA Reauthorisation legislation.

The differences between the House and Senate bills will now need to be resolved via conference committee, which will be tasked with drafting a compromise bill that both houses can accept.

"The conference report process will have many challenges because the differences between the House bill and the Senate bill are not only large but strongly held positions. It will eventually reconcile differences by finding middle ground or accepting the House or Senate position on each provision where there is a disagreement," says Biersack.

"The IPCC hopes that this Congress will find the right balance to get an FAA bill accomplished. It is overdue. It is a jobs bill. It is truly a bipartisan effort."

Biersack is optimistic that the Senate will hold its ground on Hang-Up Act legislation, however. "They elected to be silent on the ban, so their silence is a clear statement on the part of the Senate that this is the right thing to do in terms of aviation policy."

Speaking recently with ATI, AeroMobile chief commercial officer Peter Tuggey said the firm - which is in the process of equipping Emirates' entire fleet with mobile connectivity - is also optimistic that, once the two congressional houses move to reconcile their FAA Reauthorisation bills, they will be silent on the Hang-Up Act.

He says the social concerns raised by DeFazio "just haven't manifested themselves".

"When we launched with Emirates, there was a lot of [news] stories asking: 'Is this the end of flights as we know it; is this going to be terrible?' and the reality is that hasn't happened," says Tuggey.

"[In-flight mobile connectivity] has generally been accepted by passengers. We can see from in-service trends that we have passengers that like thisNow they complain when they don't have the service."

Australian operator V Australia, meanwhile, is also prepping to offer in-flight mobile connectivity to passengers on its Boeing 777-300ERs, including on its 777 flights to the United States.

The carrier, which offers Panasonic's latest generation eX2 in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, is a customer of eXPhone, Panasonic's branding for AeroMobile's mobile connectivity solution. Cellular connectivity will be integrated with the IFE.

"Our system is quite smart. It takes a connection from the aircraft flight management computer and knows where the aircraft is, and once it hits US airspace, it will automatically deactivate," says Tuggey.

All four of V Australia's 777s have provisions for retrofit activation of eXPhone. A fifth aircraft, delivered later this year, will be type certified and activated by Boeing, according to AeroMobile.

"It's an integrated solution with IFE, but it will be one of the first [US] FAA certifications as well, which is an important asset for us," says Tuggey.

British Airways' all-business Airbus A318s, which fly between London City and New York JFK, are already fitted with OnAir-provided mobile connectivity systems, allowing passengers to use their own cell phones or smartphones for text messages, emails and Internet access. Even though BA does not currently permit in-flight voice calls, the carrier must shut down its connectivity system once the aircraft hits US airspace, due to current FCC restrictions.

Despite such activities by US-bound carriers, changes to the current FCC ban of in-flight mobile phones may take some time, says Tuggey, even if a federal ban is not imposed by Congress, "I think it's going to be 12 or 13 months before we see a framework to use [mobile phones during flight] in US airspace. We'd like to think that sanity will prevail at some point."

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