Staying Connected in the Air

Making Phone Calls from the Plane

Making Phone Calls from the Plane


Most road warriors have memorized the airline cell phone usage announcement: “The Federal Communications Commission bans the in-flight use of cellular phones on aircraft.” This ban is based on the often-challenged belief that wireless transmissions can interfere with the aircraft’s electronic equipment. As a practical matter, most cellular phone networks were not designed to handle sky-high roaming at 500 mph. Regardless, several companies are developing technology that would enable you to use your cell phone in flight — but don’t expect this type of service for several years. In the meantime, you can use your cell phone while the plane is on the ground.

Verizon Airfone Service

While in the air, the Verizon Airfone Service is your best — and only — option for voice, data, and fax calls on domestic flights. Calls can be placed at the gate, during takeoff and landing, and while in flight.

Air Wisconsin, Continental, Delta, Midwest, United, and US Airways offer Airfone service on most Airbus and Boeing aircraft. The longer the flight, the higher the probability your flight will have phones. In total, 2,000 aircraft are outfitted with the service. On aircraft with phones, Airfones are generally located at every first and business class seat and every middle seat in coach.

Voice and fax rates for calls to the U.S. and Canada include a $3.99 connection fee plus $3.99 per-minute airtime fee. Data rates are $1.99 per minute, with no connection fee. Airfone also offers Verizon Wireless subscribers a substantial discount and the ability to receive inbound calls on your cell phone by subscribing to the Airfone Service Plan for Verizon Wireless for $10 per month. Calls placed on an Airfone are charged 10 cents per minute, but there is no connection fee, and all charges for the service are added to your wireless bill. On the plane, log onto the Verizon Airfone handset with your 10-digit Verizon Wireless mobile number, Airfone Service for Verizon Wireless PIN, and airplane seat number. Airfone Service for Verizon Wireless subscribers may also subscribe to JetConnect (without email) for $10 per month for unlimited use. If you are not inclined to sign up for the service, Verizon Wireless subscribers also have the option of paying 69 cents per minute with no connection fee.

If using Airfone has ever saved your day check out the Airfone Service Saved the Day promotion. Just submit your story; if it is published on the Verizon Web site, you’ll receive a free 30-minute calling card.

Electronic Communications


Airlines are beginning to introduce onboard Internet and email. International carriers are rolling out Boeing’s Connexion service; while domestic carriers have signed on with Verizon Airfone’s JetConnect service.


The Connexion service offers full real-time Internet connectivity and is scheduled to launch April 2004 on a handful of international flights. Boeing has indicated that it will roll out service in the U.S. soon. The service connects to the Internet via satellite and offers broadband speeds comparable to a network office environment. Passengers using the service will do so with either an Ethernet cable or wireless network card, depending on the airline. The service supports the following email accounts:

  • Personal POP-SMTP and web-based e-mail accounts
  • Outlook and Eudora
  • VPN through protocol sotftware

Connexion supports both Mac and Windows, but you’ll need Windows 95 or later, Mac OS 9 or OS X, IE5 or later and Navigator 4.7 or later.

Connexion will roll out service in 2004 on the international carriers Lufthansa German Airlines (Spring 2004), Japan Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), and Singapore Airlines. Service will be available on an increasing number of long-haul flights. All-Nippon Airways and China Airlines have announced plans to equip long-range jetliners with the service.

Pricing is about $30-$35 for a long-haul flight, $25 for a transatlantic flight, and $10-$14 for a transcontinental leg.


Verizon JetConnect offers email, IM, text messaging, news reports, sports updates, games, and other online services. Verizon claims that the service provides passengers a transmission speed of 56KB per second, similar to standard dial-up speed. (For one Fast Company team member’s experience using the service, see “To: My Editor. Subject: This #$&! Email” [March 2004].) You cannot browse the Internet using JetConnect, however. All Web-based content provided by JetConnect is stored on an onboard server.


To use the JetConnect service, plug your laptop into the Verizon Airfone handset using a standard phone cord at your seat. You’ll need to bring your own cord. You can use routine dial-up procedures to link to JetConnect, and no software downloads or changes to connection procedures are required. JetConnect supports Windows and Macintosh. Email accounts available inflight are:

  • Personal and corporate accounts that use OWA (Microsoft Exchange Outlook Web Access)
  • ISP and corporate accounts that use POP3 or SPOP (most major ISPs)
  • AOL, MSN, Hotmail, and Yahoo!

You will find JetConnect on US Airways, United and Continental. Look for other airlines — especially those currently offering Airfone service — to introduce JetConnect in 2004. US Airways offers JetConnect on more than 80 of its Airfone-equipped Airbus aircraft. Those aircraft also have powerports at every seat. JetConnect is also available on United’s entire domestic fleet. Continental offers JetConnect on its Boeing 737 and 757 aircarft, as well as MD 80 aircraft.

JetConnect costs $15.98 per flight, plus $0.10 per KB (Kilobit) for sending and receiving attachments or data in excess of 5KB per message. For messages exceeding 5KB in size, as well as all attachments, you are given the option to view the balance of the message or download the attachment for an additional fee. Fees can add up quickly; a one-page word document runs about 25KB and would cost an extra $2.50. JetConnect without the email feature is available for $5.99 per flight. If you subscribe to the Airfone Service Plan for Verizon Wireless suscribers, you can pay $10 per month for unlimited use.

Wi-Fi Verizon Airfone will begin trails for in-flight Wi-Fi access soon. This service will communicate directly with the on-board server and passengers’ laptops and PDAs. Verizon Airfone hopes to have 100 aircraft equipped with wireless by the end of this year.


The FCC has granted Verizon Airfone an experimental license to test broadband access in the air. If all goes well — and pending a favorable final decision from the FCC — Verizon plans to launch its speedy and unrestricted in-flight Internet access sometime in 2005.

About the Business Travel Almanac: Praised and recommended by the New York Times, the Business Travel Almanac is a must-have tool for any serious business traveler.


Talking Points

Do you have advice, experiences, or ideas about working on the Web — and managing email — while in flight? Share your stories, and we’ll highlight some of the best ideas online.