The days of the communal airphone are long gone. Being a teenager, I can’t even remember the airphones. I only know of them because of a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine uses an airphone to call Jerry. Airphones were primarily discontinued due to the fact that they weren’t used by many passengers and the price per minute was outrageous. So once the airphone was removed from commercial aircraft, passengers pretty much lost the ability to make calls from their flights.
Fast forward almost ten years since the last major airline gutted the airphone systems and passengers are unable to make calls at 35,000 feet. Well, that’s not actually true. Most passengers don’t realize that by switching on a service included in most carrier plans and a wi-fi connection, you can once again make phone calls from a commercial aircraft. Here’s how.
A few of you might already know about this free feature. Wi-Fi calling is a fairly recent innovation for mobile carriers that allows customers to make phone calls and send texts over a wireless internet connection. It’s a very useful feature for customers who might live in a network coverage gap or don’t want to use up plan limits. Another, little-known use for Wi-Fi calling is the ability to make calls from any aircraft with a stable Wi-Fi connection.
As of July 2016, GoGo In-Flight and jetBlue’s Fly-Fi service both allow Wi-Fi calling services. I haven’t had the chance to test Row44 (Southwest Airlines) or Panasonic Avionics (American Airlines, Delta on select international flights). You may run into a major roadblock, VOIP services which include Wi-Fi calling is often blocked. Still, I have been able to make calls from 35,000 feet on all jetBlue flights equipped with Fly-Fi and all American Airlines flights that were equipped with GoGo In-Flight since July 1st.
Wi-Fi calling, rather than transmitting frequencies like typical cellphone calls, transmits data. Since Wi-Fi calling relies on data, there is often a gap of up to five seconds when calling someone from cruising altitude. Also, expect to lose quite a few calls.
Enabling Wi-Fi Calling
Pretty much every Android device and most iPhones made since 2013 will have Wi-Fi calling abilities. The first step in making a call at 35,000 feet is to connect your device to the aircraft’s wi-fi. If the system requires a paid session, you will have to buy a session in order to proceed with any calls or texts. Once connected, make sure Wi-Fi calling is enabled on your device. You’ll have to go into your device settings to enable the feature. Be patient as it may take a few minutes for the Wi-Fi calling features to go live. Once Wi-Fi calling is enabled and you’re connected to the aircraft’s Wi-Fi, you’re ready to make your first call. Open your phone app and make a call like you normally would.
Making The Call
So, you’ve successfully completed a phone call at 35,000 feet. It might have gone a little something like my first call, “Dad, guess where I’m calling from?”. Everything worked out perfectly for you. For five or so dollars for an hour session, you managed to get some work done, maybe you booked your hotel, or maybe you just caught up with an old friend. However, aside from slowing down the Wi-Fi for everyone, you just did what every passenger has feared since the first smartphone; you just yelled into your hand while hundreds of others around you bit their lips–trying to keep themselves from destroying your phone. This raises the issue, just because you’re able to make a call at 35,000 feet doesn’t mean you should? So, when should you make a Wi-Fi call from your plane? Probably never. The few times I’ve used the Wi-Fi calling was to accomplish two things; brag to my parents and test out the speeds of in-flight wi-fi. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. That phrase is unbelievably important when using Wi-Fi calling on a plane packed full of other passengers.
We might not have access to the retro Airphone any longer, however, further innovation has led to the ability to use our cell phone’s over wireless internet. This essentially, once again, allows passengers to stay connect where ever they might be. It replaces the Airphone technology, however, raises a handful of new issues. What’s going to happen if everyone starts using their phones? Should it be legal? Is it a safety concern? All three of those questions are completely valid concerns, questions I don’t really have the ability to answer. One thing is for sure, making calls at 35,000 feet makes you look like the coolest person, like, ever.