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It’s no secret that flying isn’t as glamorous as it used to be. Even before September 11, air travel was beginning to feel like taking a crowded bus. But with its security checkpoints and high fares, flying still had one big advantage over most modes of transportation: It was blessedly free of cellular phone chatter, the bane of commuters elsewhere. But thanks to some recent advances, that’s about to change. Cellular phones, and lots of other slick services, are making their way into the airliner cabin � even in coach, and in spite of the recent security scares. (At press time laptops and other gadgets such as portable music players were permitted again on flights to and from the United Kingdom.) Say hello to in-flight Internet access and on-demand video. Say goodbye to the last cell phone � free zone on (or above) earth. Permitting in-flight cell phone use is a controversial idea: According to a January 2005 USA Today/Gallup poll, two-thirds of the respondents said they prefer that the ban on cell phone use in the air continue. The use of cell phones is currently forbidden on aircraft, at least once the plane is under way. But that’s likely to change soon. The phones aren’t banned because they’re annoying. They’re forbidden because when a cell phone is turned on, it tries to connect with a local network, and the harder the time it has connecting, the harder it tries, increasing its power output to send a stronger signal, which can interfere with onboard navigation tools and other flight systems. But where there’s a revenue stream, there’s a way. Cell phones could be perfectly safe to use in the air if only they didn’t radiate so much energy, so technology has been developed to trick the phones into toning down the power. The idea is to put a mini-network on the aircraft itself. The phones connect with it, at greatly reduced power settings, and never bother to hunt for earthbound networks. This technology, called a pico cell, has spurred the Federal Communications Commission to rethink its ban on in-flight cell phone use; a final decision is expected this year. In the meantime, the Europeans are taking the lead on cell phone use. Air France has announced that it will test a system built by OnAir NV, a joint venture between Airbus S.A.S. and the European company SITA, for six months next year on board one of its Airbus jets. To connect calls to airline cabins, OnAir will work via satellite. The company already provides seatback SMS (Short Message Service) messaging on airlines including Emirates, Northwest, Qantas, and Virgin Atlantic. Frequent travelers aren’t only cell phone addicts; many of them carry laptops, too. But after you’ve looked at the memos and spreadsheets and (battery willing) played a DVD, there isn’t much to do with that PC. Wouldn’t it be great if you could send and receive e-mail from your seat, or surf the Internet? In fact, some travelers were able to do just that � at least until recently. Lufthansa and other carriers offered a service by The Boeing Company called Connexion that allowed passengers to log on to the Net wirelessly. Boeing, however, discontinued the service in August, saying it didn’t attract enough users to justify the cost of maintaining an elaborate satellite network to support Connexion. But Connexion won’t be the last word on in-flight WiFi. The first to the gate following the service’s collapse looks to be OnAir, which promises to offer wireless Internet service on several European carriers starting early next year. The company says that it will offer low-priced service for BlackBerrys and other handheld devices, while laptop users who want to surf the Web will pay more. Budget airline JetBlue has plans in the works, too; it recently acquired some wireless frequencies in a government auction. Verizon Communications Inc. also left a door open to in-flight WiFi when it shut down its Airfone seatback telephone service. The wireless frequency used by Airfone was auctioned off in May to AirCell, Inc., a Louisville, Colorado � based company that makes equipment for in-flight data services. Don’t log on just yet, though; AirCell’s plans are still unclear. Some of the handiest in-flight technologies are the least dazzling. Most passengers would take a power outlet over a cell phone anytime, and increasingly they’re getting their wish, as more airlines are installing more outlets on more aircraft. But a word or two of caution: For one thing, most coach sections are still outlet-free, though some airlines, such as Continental, have installed them at select seats on their newer aircraft. More important, even if there is an outlet at your seat, you may not be able to use it if you don’t plan ahead. That’s because many airlines use DC or EmPower systems that require computer users to bring adapters. These adapters are not expensive (generally available for $30 � $50), but if you don’t have one, you’ll need either a long-lasting battery or a short-lasting flight. Other airlines, such as KLM and Singapore Airlines, use standard AC outlets, which require nothing other than your regular power cord. Luckily, there is a handy Web site that keeps track of all the permutations: seatguru.com. It even maps out where the outlets are located on different aircraft, seat by seat. (An added bonus if you don’t like crying babies: It also tells you where the airlines put the bassinets.) On-demand video is also gaining traction on aircraft � particularly on longer international routes. The current gold standard is Virgin Atlantic’s V-port system, which is gradually being rolled out through the fleet. It features 300 hours of video that can be played, paused, rewound, and fast-forwarded on command. More than 50 music albums are available, as are 18 games and air-to-ground SMS. Passengers can even send free e-mail to other passengers. That should come in handy once the cell phones are unleashed: We’ll have an easy way to ask the guy in 24D to keep it down. Alan Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York.

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