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In-flight, no-one can hear you scream

Before we start, let's have a big patriotic round of virtual applause for Qantas, which will be up there with Emirates as one of the first airlines in the world to introduce in-flight SMS and e-mail access on its domestic fleet later this year.
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Written by Jude Willis on

Before we start, let's have a big patriotic round of virtual applause for Qantas, which will be up there with Emirates as one of the first airlines in the world to introduce in-flight SMS and e-mail access on its domestic fleet later this year.

For a long time, we digital nomads have been told we can't communicate from the air for fear of our mobile signal interfering with essential aircraft systems.

Airlines would counter any questions as to the logic of this claim with the same flaccid conviction as explanations linking the relevance of a nice tight seatbelt with a collision at Mach one. But hey, air travel is spooky enough; I'm all for mitigating risk, if that's what the ban was about.

What I often pondered, however, was whether the technical argument for not allowing this connectivity was actually a front for a far more sensible reason. How could anybody enjoy the miracle of flight with a plane full of people talking on the phone?

With Qantas' recent announcement, I'll ponder no more.

For a start, the type of in-flight system Qantas is investing in allows for an ample amount of data traffic, while voice traffic suffers from some "very definite limitations".

"There is a misconception around that these systems allow for a plane full of passengers talking," says Vanessa Hudson, general manager of product and services at Qantas.

Phew.

But even more interestingly, Qantas' trial of the service, conducted in the second half of 2007, shows that most business-related passengers don't care much for voice calls anyway.

In the feedback gained from the 11,000 passengers that used the service, the most glaring peculiarity is that very few passengers care to be making calls while hurtling through the sky at unfathomable speeds.

"Our customers told us that their need is definitely e-mail and data and that such a need is growing," says Hudson. "The rate of taking up that technology is growing — customers are telling us that staying connected is about e-mail and SMS — they don't need the phone calls as much as the data."

In the sky, it appears, voice is dead, and data is king.

The concept of passengers talking to each other, of course, remains unimaginable.

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