U.K-based carrier Virgin Atlantic this week announced it will now allow London-to-New York passengers to make and receive cell phone calls at 35,000 feet.
The service, which will also include text messaging capabilities, email and Web via GPRS, is targeted to business travelers, and will limit connectivity to six users at any one time. "The service is intended for use in exceptional situations, when passengers need to send an SMS, make a quick call, or access an email on a Blackberry," the airline said in a statement.
The new service has undergone on board tests over the last few months and has been positively received by customers, according to the airline. It is currently operational on A330-300s and by the end of 2012, the system will be available to passengers on nearly 20 Virgin Atlantic aircraft.
Aeromobile phone service includes a small mobile base station (pico cell) installed onboard that connects calls, SMS and data via satellite to networks on the ground. The AeroMobile technology manages all mobile devices onboard. (U.S.-based in-flight connectivity company Panasonic Avionics is a majority stakeholder in Aeromobile.)
Virgin Atlantic said the service will initially be available for customers with British carriers O2 and Vodafone network providers. The service is not permitted during take-off or landing, and has to be turned off approximately 250 miles from U.S. airspace, where the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has banned the use of cellular voice capabilities citing security concerns.
U.S. carriers have been equipping their fleets for data and text message communications for passengers' smartphones and other personal electronic devices, using air-to-ground or satcom networks. However, the FCC ban and social considerations of cell phones have prevented U.S. airlines for allowing voice calls in flight. Voice calls are permitted in other parts of the world, namely Asia and the Middle East. For example, Emirates Airline uses the Aeromobile GSM network, with service is available on more than 100 Emirates flights per day and that number is growing, according to the airline.