Software on phones like the Samsung A500 from Sprint PCS, unveiled on Tuesday, will shut down the part of the phone that sends and receives telephone calls, said Sprint PCS spokeswoman Bit Vo. At the same time, the new programming lets cell phone users access games or telephone directories stored on the phone.
That may give airline passengers a flight path around part of a standard rule governing their onboard electronic habits.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bans the use of cell phones on airplanes because of worries that calls could interfere with a plane's navigation system. Cell phones have to be connected to a wireless network to do anything, even if it has nothing to do with making a call. So a person simply playing a game or looking up an e-mail address stored on a cell phone could receive a phone call, and that would violate the FAA ban.
Sprint PCS is calling the new service "airplane mode," because it lets someone use a phone on an aircraft, Vo said.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said that a cell phone in airplane mode likely wouldn't violate the FAA ban. But the phones are sure to throw off flight attendants, who are accustomed to telling passengers to turn off the devices.
"If you are a crew member, how would you be able to distinguish the difference?" she said.
Vo said the possibility of confusion was taken into account. When in airplane mode, the phone will flash an on-screen message reading "Phone Is Off."
Samsung is one of a growing number of wireless equipment makers to add such a feature to phones. Motorola sells two-way pagers with a similar mode, but the company's cell phones do not have the feature, according to a company spokeswoman.
PDAs (personal digital assistants) with wireless connections, meanwhile, have the ability to shut down the part of the device that connects with a telephone network. Some even come with two power buttons, one to turn on the phone and another to turn on the PDA's programs.