Testing in-flight cell phone service

Kim Carney / msnbc.com

"It's an invasion! Let us alone!" 

That was Pierre Rondot's reaction last Thursday to a flight attendant's announcement that, as part of a three-month experiment, passengers were free to use their cell phones to make voice calls during Air France flight #2142 between Paris and Geneva.

Rondot, a World Bank economist on his way from Washington, D.C. to Morocco, was disappointed to learn that in-flight cell phone service was now possible. "It's too much," he told me from his seat near the back of the one Air France plane outfitted with cell phone technology. "I'd happily pay extra to be on a plane without cell phones. If we can be connected on an airplane, we'll just get more squeezed. There needs to be some space between work and life. The airplane has been that one place where we can be out of reach for a while."

Not anymore.

Last December, Air France started a six-month trial to test in-flight mobile phone technology. One Airbus 318 airplane used on routes within Europe and North Africa is equipped with a communication system that allows both in-flight data exchanges (email, text and SMS messages) and in-flight voice calls. The plane typically makes three or four round-trips each day, but passengers don't know ahead of time if their flight will be on that "special" plane.

During the first three months of the test (January through March, 2008), passengers could only use the data service to send and receive messages from the plane. For the second three months (April through June) both data messages and voice-calls are allowed. Passengers are being asked to fill out surveys and Air France representatives say they will use the results of those surveys to decide whether or not to equip all their airplanes with this service.

Even if Air France decides not to offer in-flight voice calling once the test is over, other airlines will probably go ahead and do so. Telecom officials in 20 European Union countries have given airlines the green light to develop and offer this service throughout EU airspace — so it's just a matter of time.

But do people want it?
So far, results from the data-only part of the Air France trial show that passengers really like being able to send text messages "and surprise family, friends and colleagues" from the plane. The voice-calling part of the test is still underway, so there's no official word yet on what passengers are saying.

Unofficially, though, it seems travelers aren't too keen yet on sky-high cell phone calls.

Last Thursday, I was a passenger on the Air France "cell phone plane" for a round-trip between Paris and Geneva. Twenty-five-year-old Jimena Alva, from Mexico City, and her seatmates, 33 year-old Yves Mauch and 28-year-old Marjorie Bissat from Switzerland, were seated in front of me on the outbound flight. All three made a point of filling out the survey to let Air France know they were against allowing passengers to use their cell phones to make voice calls during a flight.

Alva, who was talking on her cell phone as she boarded the plane and took her seat, liked the idea of being able to send and receive email and text messages on the airplane, but was against in-flight voice calls. "I have a friend who loves the idea," said Alva, "but I wouldn't want to have to sit next to her while she talks on her phone during the whole flight!"

Mauch and Bissat felt much the same way. "An airplane is one of the rare places where, so far, you know you won't be disturbed by the ringing of phones," said Mauch. "But if they allow it and my seatmate has business calls to make, what could I do?" Bissat, who thinks all flights should be "calm, peaceful and cell phone-free," had an idea: "If someone was talking on their phone after a few minutes I would lean over and say, 'Do you think it's possible that I could enjoy my flight?'"

Flight attendant Cedric Bernard has only seen one person in business class actually make an in-flight call. However, he's already thought through how he'd handle the situation if one passenger complained about being disturbed by the cell phone call of a seatmate. "I'd explain that the passenger has a right to be on the phone. But I'd also tell the upset passenger that he or she could move to another seat, if one was empty. Then I'd ask the person on the phone to speak softer and to please respect other passengers."

Clement Polan, on his way to visit his family, wasn't too excited about the idea of in-flight cell phone service. The 20-year-old was sitting across from me on the Geneva-Paris return trip, and I noticed that he took two cell phones out of his pocket and turned them off before take-off.

When I gave him a puzzled look, he told me that "one is cheap to use in France, the other is cheap to use in Switzerland." Polan liked the idea of being able to use data service from his seat, but ideally he'd like there to a be a separate place on the plane where people could go to make phone calls, thinking he'd be disturbed if the person next to him on the plane started talking on their cell phone. "People like to be relaxed on the plane. If someone was talking too loud or too long, I'd tell them to go away or turn it off. If they didn't, I'd call the flight attendant."

Since Polan had two phones with him, I asked him to test out the in-flight cell phone service by placing a call from one phone to the other. He couldn't complete a call on either phone, but one of his seatmates could — sort of. As we left the plane a Geneva-based pharmaceutical company salesman told me that he'd successfully sent a few text messages during the flight and tried to make a few phone calls. The voice connection was "not so good," but as he rushed off he said, "For business, I'd definitely like to be able to make phone calls from the airplane. Just let me know when it works."

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.