Virgin Atlantic allows passengers to make cellphone calls while in the air

By Scott Mayerowitz, AP

NEW YORK — The phrase “Can you hear me now” has entered the jet age.

Passengers on certain Virgin Atlantic flights are now able to use their cellphones to make and receive phone calls at 35,000 feet (10,600 meters), the airline announced Tuesday.

The British airline’s new service could be a blessing for business travelers who want to stay connected during eight-hour flights across the ocean. It could also be a nightmare for the passenger sitting next to them.

“I suspect most passengers, like myself, would prefer not to listen to somebody on the phone for what might be hours,” said airline analyst Robert Mann.

Only six passengers at a time will be able to use the system, which the airline says is intended “for use in exceptional situations.” Passengers will be able to send text messages, make a call or access email on mobile devices. An airline spokesman could not say how much a call would cost.

Initially, the service — which utilizes a satellite connection — will only be available for customers of European cellphone providers O2 and Vodafone and U.S. carrier T-Mobile.

The service debuted Tuesday on the airline’s new Airbus A330-300 planes flying between New York and London. It will expand to nearly 20 planes by year-end, from a handful now.

Dubai-based Emirates became the first carrier to allow passengers to use their personal cellphones back in 2008. A handful of other airlines in the Middle East including Oman Air and Royal Jordanian now have similar services.

Passengers today already wrestle for control of the armrest and the few precious inches of personal space they have. It isn’t clear how the flying public will react to phone calls midflight.

George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog, says Virgin will have to restrict times of day when passengers can make calls in order to not wake up fellow passengers on overnight flights.

This new phone service is part of a larger US$160 million dollar upgrade of the airline’s Upper Class cabin, although it will be also available to passengers in coach. Calls are not permitted during takeoff or landing or within 250 miles of U.S. airspace.