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Jet Blue

Airline officials are contemplating banning more electronic devices from in-flight use. Why is that, exactly?
Elaine Appleton Grant, CFO Magazine
December 1, 2006

In August 1959, Pan American Airlines began offering nonstop service from New York's Idlewild airport to London's Heathrow. By all accounts, the transatlantic trip — which took about seven and a half hours on a Boeing 707-320 — was a testament to comfort, sophistication, and gracious traveling.

It's been downhill ever since (see "Flying the Unfriendly Skies"). While the air speed of jets has increased in the succeeding four decades, the increase in air traffic has offset those gains. What's more, the airline industry's Shriners-like knack for cramming lots of people into undersized vehicles has turned a once-glamorous means of transportation into the modern equivalent of a cattle drive.

Business travelers have been mostly able to block out lousy conditions and disappearing amenities by focusing on work or listening to their playlists. But now, even that appears under threat. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently prohibits the use of cellular phones during flights, additional devices are starting to make it into the no-fly zone. Notably, in August, British officials banned passengers from carrying notebook computers (as well as iPods, PDAs, and portable DVD players) onto flights originating in the UK. That move came on the heels of decisions by Korean Air and Qantas Airways to restrict the use of Dell, Apple, and Sony laptops — and their potentially combustible batteries.

Airline-passenger groups hailed the restrictions, arguing that air safety supersedes issues of convenience. Business travelers may be less enthused. Forrester Research reckons that 81 percent of business travelers have portable DVD players, while about 45 percent own laptops. Throw in the number of executives who carry company-provided notebooks and that percentage probably doubles.

Statistics like that have some analysts doubting that the FAA will follow the UK's lead by ordering outright bans on electronic devices. An airline that preemptively prohibits or restricts the devices could lose customers. Says Henry Harteveldt, principal travel analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco: "If business travelers can't travel on a certain airline with a laptop, they'll say buh-bye."

Altitude Adjustment
So why are airline and transportation officials making noises about the dangers of in-flight electronics? Concerns about safety top the list. Anecdotal evidence does suggest that mobile phones may — may — produce some minor disturbances to global positioning systems and ground tower equipment.

Of course, at 30,000 feet, no disturbance is minor. Still, definitive evidence of electromagnetic interference is hard to find. The FAA is scheduled to release a study this month on the impact of mobile telephony on aircraft avionics, but the research will not likely reveal any great dangers. One possible bug: at higher altitudes, cell phones tend to switch to a higher signal-hunting power. This problem could be alleviated by restricting in-flight cell phone use to phones with airplane modes. Such phones are set to cease hunting for a signal at a specified altitude.

Many travel, telephony, and security analysts insist there are few good reasons for banning electronic devices on planes. Security consultant Bruce Schneier says he doesn't understand the assertion that electronic gadgets like notebook computers pose a security hazard on a plane. "What, because you can use your laptop to hit someone over the head?" he quips.

Indeed, some observers wonder if airline operators have ulterior motives for sounding alarms about the safety of electronic gadgets. It's a fair question. The fact is, airline profitability often hinges on the ability of a carrier to add 2 cents of revenue per mile per passenger. As any CFO knows, it's easier to wring more cash out of existing customers than to win new ones. Certainly, offering proprietary or third-party in-air telephony services would satisfy the demand of travelers to stay connected. And make no mistake, that demand is huge. One survey found that, if permitted, 94 percent of business travelers would take calls and check E-mail during flights.

Currently, one domestic airline, Jet Blue, is developing technology that enables passengers to use cell phones and notebook wireless cards while flying. Telephony companies OnAir and AirCell are developing similar services. OnAir's product will be available in the next few months on some flights on three airlines, including Air France. UK carrier Ryanair's entire fleet will be equipped with mobile telephony offerings by next summer. AirCell plans to roll out its Wi-Fi service aboard American-based airlines in 2008.

The company will face little competition. This month, Boeing is shutting down its much-trumpeted Connexion by Boeing in-flight broadband service, citing lack of demand. On the face of it, that would seem to punch holes in the theory that business travelers want in-flight cell and Internet service. But it may simply be a matter of price: so far, vendors have not been able to deliver in-flight communication services at a reasonable rate.

OnAir CEO George Cooper says the charge for the company's service will be in line with international roaming rates. AirCell, too, promises prices comparable to ground-based Wi-Fi costs. Dan O'Shea, editor of industry publication Telephony Online, isn't convinced. He speculates the connection fees will be close to $2.50 a minute — still high.

Until prices drop, many business travelers will try to find workarounds. The obvious answer seems to be Internet-based phone systems. Some executives already use Skype software on their notebooks to place in-flight Internet calls to other Skype users for free. Calls to traditional landline and mobile phones via the Skype protocol cost between 1 cent and $1.39 per minute, depending on where you call.

Other business travelers have opted for easier fixes. Surveys indicate that a small percentage of business travelers simply refuse to turn off their mobile devices after takeoff. One CFO acknowledges that she doesn't shut off her Blackberry when she travels. Instead, the finance chief, who flew 100,000 miles last year, uses the PDA to update her E-mail whenever she can get a connection. "Traveling over certain cities at certain heights you can often get a signal," says the CFO. "You'd be surprised what you can get over Denver."

Arrested, for one thing.

Elaine Appleton Grant writes about business from Strafford, New Hampshire.