They weren't the first and they won't be the biggest, but Ryanair has made a big splash by announcing it will support in-flight mobile phones from next year, regulators permitting. Air France, BMI and the Portuguese airline TAP have also said they'll be doing this, but they lack the instinct for publicity that Michael O'Leary was born with.
He's also got an unmatched instinct for profit. Precise details have yet to be announced, but I confidently predict that calls will cost tuppence if you book them online a month in advance to someone you only vaguely know, £20 a minute otherwise. Words over two syllables long will cost extra, no sentence will be longer than five words total, and if you call someone in Paris you'll get put through to Normandy. Oh, and all the switchboard operators will only speak Basque.
Until now, phones -- like all radio transmitters -- have been banned from use on planes. The big problem isn't that mobile phones can interfere with in-flight navigation and control systems. They can, but rarely and with little effect -- one UK test programme (PDF) reported around five incidents a year, none serious. Modern avionics is designed to be fearsomely resistant to interference -- although not entirely immune, given the number of flights and the likelihood that somebody will forget to turn their phone off, if there was a big problem it would have surfaced by now.
The real issue is air rage. Flying's bad enough these days, but imagine being stuck next to the ringtone from hell for eleven hours, or next to some mouth-breathing ape intent on recounting every second of his Ayia Napa experiences to Chazza, Bazza and Ricky back in Croydon. In fact, it doesn't matter who it is or what they're saying, in the noisy environment of an aircraft cabin they'll be shouting to be heard and you'll be desperate not to hear them. This risk is taken seriously enough by the International Civil Aviation Organisation that it was high on their list (see WP2 zip file) of potential airborne phone problems discussed at their recent meeting in Egypt. All they've said, though, is that people should think about it.
One solution -- not that anyone's considering it -- would be to restrict phone calls to a five minute duration, and then only from an isolated booth -- the airplane toilet. It's sufficiently unpleasant in there (particularly at the end of a long-haul flight) that nobody will try to abuse those rules -- allowing people to make a call if they're desperate, while leaving the rest of us in relative peace.
This won't happen. It'll be a free for all. If Ryanair thinks there's money to be made, there undoubtedly is. Everyone will play, and we can look forward to adding a 4am mid-Atlantic chorus of crazy froggery to the delights of modern travel. There will be a bonus for any company bright enough to build noise-cancelling circuitry into their mobile phones, a marked increase in the sale of pocket phone jammers, and quite possibly the legalisation of in-flight morphine. Now that's what I call flying. -Rupert Goodwins