Cellphones in the sky

Virgin Atlantic wins the race for incoming in-flight cellphone calls.

By Don George
July 7, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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The next-to-last hurdle in the transformation of airplane cabin into fully functioning mobile office has finally been leapt.

Virgin Atlantic Airways announced Thursday that its passengers can now receive in-flight cellphone calls, making it the first airline to offer such an option. The service will be available immediately in all classes on all Virgin flights, according to spokeswoman Sharon Pomerantz.


To use the service, passengers swipe a special card supplied by their cellphone service provider through onboard phone handsets, then dial a registration number. Phone calls to the passenger's cellphone number are routed through a ground station to the plane via satellite. The passenger receives a visual prompt on his private monitor and hears a light ringing in his headset. He then picks up the handset to conduct his call. The service can be used throughout the flight, except on takeoff and landing.

The option can be deactivated with a second swipe of the card.

Branded Earth Calling by Virgin, the new service was developed by British Telecom. To use the service, passengers must be British Telecom cellphone service customers or their service providers must have an arrangement with British Telecom. European and Asian service providers currently signed up include Cellnet, Celcom, Vodafone, M1 Singapore, SingTel Mobile and Orange. The company is in the process of signing up North American service providers; a list is not yet available. Interested travelers should contact British Telecom or Virgin for the most up-to-date list.


Land-based callers using this service are charged for the land part of the call only; passengers are charged for the ground-to-air connection. The same technology also allows passengers to make and charge air-to-ground calls using their cellphone accounts.

Now that it has made the skies safe for cellphones, Virgin is tackling the last in-flight-office hurdle -- the ability to send and receive e-mail and surf the Internet in the air. The company says passengers will be able to do so by 2002.

We'd better enjoy the reprieve while we can.

Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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