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Cell phones okay for flights over European Union

BRUSSELS — You can use your cell phone in the skies over Europe later this year under new rules that will allow air travelers to stay in touch.

But don't expect to use your phone on a U.S. flight any time soon, because there is no plan to lift the ban on U.S. carriers.

The decision Monday by the European Union makes the 27-nation bloc the first region in the world to scrap bans on the use of cell phones in the sky. The EU says the change will not compromise safety.

Calls will be connected through an onboard base station — think of a miniature cell phone tower — linked to a satellite and then to ground networks. A flight's captain will be able to turn off service any time.

Phone service will be blocked during takeoff and landing, EU spokesman Martin Selmayr said.

EU officials say the calls will not interfere with flight navigation and will have safeguards to protect against terrorism.

European officials have warned consumers to expect higher fees for the cell phone calls because of the cost of setting up the onboard networks.

But some travelers have another concern: noisy passengers. The friendly skies are one of the last refuges against shrill ringtones and yapping callers.

The new EU rules were welcomed by airlines, some of which, such as Air France-KLM, had already launched a trial of in-flight phone service. British Midland Airways Ltd., Portugal's TAP and Ryanair are also planning to offer services this year.

But British Airways, which flies nonstop from Tampa, Orlando and Miami to London, said it is not offering the service. "We were led by customer feedback on that matter,'' spokeswoman Michele Krops said.

German airline Lufthansa also said it doesn't plan to introduce the service because customers don't want it.

That's fine with some Tampa Bay area residents who often fly to Europe.

"If I had the ability, I would use it,'' said David Vetter, who flies to Europe several times a year for Tech Data Corp., the Clearwater computer products distributor. "But having experienced the rush of cell phone usage as the plane touches down, I tend to agree with British Airways. It's probably going to be an added irritant on crowded flights.''

St. Petersburg resident Troy Kurtz took that sentiment a step further. "I hate it now when people in the gate are talking on their cell phones,'' said Kurtz, a frequent traveler to Europe for cash handling giant Loomis.

"If I've got to sit 18 inches away from someone for three hours, someone talking to friends while you're trying to sleep, or some self-important business traveler trying to be the big guy on the plane, it'll be awful.''

The EU system will rely on European GSM technology. Although the technical standards for American and European GSM phones are different, American GSM phones would work on European flights.

In the United States, cell phone use on flights is banned by two regulatory agencies. Both said Monday they had no plans to change their rules.

Times staff writer Tom Zucco contributed to this report.

Cell phones okay for flights over European Union 04/07/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 12:12am]
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