Beyond the technical reasons for not allowing cellphone use in-flight in the United States is that passengers and crew alike have made it clear the skies are the last escape they have from constant conversation. That may be changing, now that Virgin Atlantic is allowing flyers to make and receive phone calls in the air at 35,000 feet.

The announcement comes as Virgin Atlantic officially unveils its new aircraft – the Airbus A330-300 –  that features a redesigned Upper Class cabin with a “technology hub” that connects a smartphone, USB or tablet device.

The service, available on the new A330 from London to New York as well as the airline’s B747 aircraft, also will allow people to send and receive text messages and email while providing Web access via GPRS. It ain’t cheap, though – costing $$1.60 a minute or more for voice – and only 10 passenger can make calls simultaneously. And those flyers need to be 02 or Vodafone customers.

Notes COO Steve Griffiths, “Many people will have experienced that moment when you’re about to take off on a 10-hour flight and you need to send an important message to the office, or even reminding a family member to feed the cat! We have listened to what customers want and connectivity in the air is always on the wish list.”

He adds, “It’s also quite fun to call home and say “Guess where I am” – not many people would think you’re traveling at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.”

Other airlines – including Lufthansa and Qatar Airways – discontinued their in-flight calling programs following passenger backlash.

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