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I’m Calling You from a Chair in the Sky

Rob Pegoraro

I’m Calling You from a Chair in the Sky

AUSTIN — Gogo, the inflight WiFi company, wanted to show off how its next-gen system lets you text and talk from the sky, so it sent its “Gogo One” private jet down to the airport here to give visiting journalists a chance to try it out.

I took them up on the offer Friday. Once aloft, I sent the only appropriate message to a friend who was also in town for SxSW:

“I’m texting you from a private jet. How are you?”

Anthony, in turn, sent the only appropriate response:

“[Bleep] off :)”

Many people react this way to the idea of airborne communication. Relaxing the ban on using phones from planes is an emotional issue. When the Federal Communications Commission proposed last year to lift the ban on the use of cellphones in planes, for in-flight texting and calling, travelers erupted in protest, expecting airplanes to devolve into dens of cacophony.

(To everyone tempted to march to the FCC’s offices, pitchforks in hand: Have you already forgotten when you could make calls from planes for $5 a minute on a GTE Airfone? Did you think that airplanes were already winged versions of Amtrak’s Quiet Car?)

While various parties and agencies mull the FCC’s proposal to lift the ban, Gogo will already work because its texting-and-calling feature — now available on its Aircell service for private planes — doesn’t rely on conventional cell service and so doesn’t need a permission slip from the feds. Instead, it routes texts and calls over a souped-up version of its existing air-to-ground data service, using the Gogo wireless connection in plane cabins to communicate with phones, and using custom apps for texting and calling on the phones themselves.

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That meant I couldn’t just pick up my phone, hop onto Gogo’s WiFi and start annoying pals once airborne. Instead, I had to install a beta version of Gogo’s texting app on my Android phone and then borrow a Gogo executive’s own phone to try voice calls.

Inside the Gogo text app, sending messages back and forth worked like in any other program, although the service can’t handle multimedia messaging. (Fearless prediction: Complaining that you can’t send a picture message from a chair in the sky will be the new complaining about how slow your Internet access is from a chair in the sky.) 

But texting from a plane isn’t that revolutionary. Anybody using an Internet-linked system such as iMessage, Google Voice, WhatsApp or Facebook messaging can do that from a plane today, assuming she can deal with the in-plane wireless service’s customary, inexplicable hiccups.

I was looking forward to making phone calls aloft, but that didn’t work as well. My first call to a friend waiting at the airport below went fine, but when he tried to call me back, the call dropped immediately. A moment later, the Gogo app on Product Vice President Brad Jaehn’s iPhone reported “Service Temporarily Unavailable.” 

That persisted for a few minutes before the service mysteriously restored itself — suggesting that in-flight Internet phone calls will closely resemble in-flight Internet access today. After that, Dan and I were able to have a reasonably normal call, aside from a few outbreaks of the kind of metallic audio distortion that can barge into Skype calls.

And then the plane descended below 10,000 feet. Gogo’s license doesn’t allow for use below that altitude, and the call unceremoniously dropped.

Texting looks like it could hit the market this year, although what you’d pay for it (per text, per flight?) and how (by paying the airline, by paying your wireless carrier, by buying an app?) remain unclear. 

But it doesn’t look like commercial travelers will experience authorized in-flight calling (as opposed to surreptitious FaceTime sessions) even when it becomes technically and legally possible. U.S. airlines don’t want to chance enraging customers, Jaehn said: “Their passenger response to voice has been: Not gonna happen.”

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