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'Pay phones' in jetliners may lie just over horizon

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Ever have the urge to keep in touch with your office or friends while flying along at 33,000 feet? If you do -- and if enough other airline passengers have a similar yen -- the day may come when radiotelephones are standard equipment in jet cabins.

Eric Ohrvall of Aeronautical Raio Inc., the company that provides communications services to the entire airline industry, estimates that some airlines may offer that airborne fringe benefit within the next two or three years.

How quickly the new service is offered depends on whether the added expense is affordable in this competitive age of deregulation and on just how much passengers really want it. And new technology must be developed to handle the expected number and length of calls that passengers would want to make.

Industry analysts suggest that the rush to make calls would most likely occur when planes are assigned a holding pattern over an airport. The potential volume of annual passenger calls from the air could reach 100 million a year by their estimates.

At present the Federal Communications Commission has assigned only 12 frequencies out of several hundred for thirty-party, air-to-ground communication. The congestion on these radiotelephone channels, which are operated by 75 independent radio stations, is already heavy.

The same frequency spectrum is used to suppoer mobile land phones, a privilege for which some 50,000 Americans are said to be waiting in line. One businessman who wanted to install a phone in his mobile home was recently told he would have to wait at least two years.

"You couln't use existing frequencies [for commercial plane phone service] -- you'd have to have several hundred more set aside for just that purpose," Mr. Ohrvall observes.

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