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In the skies over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, airline passengers can chat and text on cellphones without getting an angry look from a flight attendant.
Thai Airways, with regular flights from Los Angeles to Bangkok, recently announced plans to offer onboard cellphone service, joining about 20 other foreign-based carriers that already offer it.
But U.S. carriers are not rushing to jump on the bandwagon, even though aviation experts say new satellite-based technology makes airborne cellphone calls safe.
“It’s not a priority of ours right now,” said Mary Frances Fagan, a spokeswoman for American Airlines.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission prohibit cellphone calls on planes over U.S. airspace, but federal officials say they would listen to requests by airlines to lift the restrictions.
But don’t expect airline officials in the U.S. to press for such changes. They cite the extra cost and hassle to test, install and operate cellphone technology as one reason to keep cellphones off domestic flights.
And airlines point out that passengers are not clamoring for the service, according to several surveys that say most air travelers expect that in-flight cellular service will lead to loud phone conversations and onboard fury.
“Cellphone offerings and voice-over data is not something that our members are seeing strong demand for from their passengers,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s airline industry.
Even flight attendants have voiced opposition, saying cellphone calls would only make their jobs more difficult.
But on foreign airlines, reports of cellphone calls causing disputes or disturbances have been rare, primarily because calls are costly – starting at about $1.20 per minute – and noisy aircraft cabins deter long conversations, according to foreign carriers and passengers.
Without demand from passengers, U.S. airline representatives say they won’t press federal officials to allow cellphone calls on domestic flights.
“Right now our focus is on what customers say they want, and that is in-flight Wi-Fi,” said Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, the nation’s most popular domestic carrier.
In the U.S., the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission have prohibited in-flight cellular calls because, they say, strong signals from phones may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system and communication equipment on the ground.