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March 15, 2004 -- Rarely do I look at lower prices in the air as a bad thing. But I admit to a little trepidation about one new development: for many people, those seatback phones in airplanes are now becoming affordable.

The breakthrough comes from Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest mobile-phone carrier. Their tens of millions of subscribers can now use Verizon's seatback Airfones for 69 cents a minute, or for a mere 10 cents a minute plus a $10 monthly subscription fee. What's more, you can set up your mobile phone to forward to the plane, so that the phone on the seat in front of you rings when someone calls your mobile. All you have to do is dial *611 with your mobile before getting on board, to set up the service.

Non-Verizon Wireless customers will still pay a walloping $3.99/minute to use the seatback phones.

This is great for people who need to make critical calls on planes. But it's terrible for everyone else. Right now, it's possible to make calls with ordinary cell phones when planes are on the ground, and most of the calls I've seen made have been after a plane has landed. But this new development opens up the possibility of someone chit-chatting away on a seatback phone in a coach-class middle seat to the detriment of neighbors seated within earshot.

I asked Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert in Palm Beach, FL and Sprint's official spokeswoman on wireless etiquette, about this new development. She offered one cardinal rule: keep calls short, even if they're cheap.

Airfoning Without Aggravation

There's one purely sociable way to take advantage of the new Airfone service, though, and I'll probably do it the next time I get on board an Airfone-equipped plane. Bring your own telephone cord, and you can hook your laptop computer up to a variety of Internet-based services.

Straight calls to a dialup Internet service (at a pokey 9,600 baud) cost the same as voice calls. (A hint: set up your e-mail client to download headers rather than whole messages, so you're not stuck downloading forever.) At 69 cents a minute -- let's call it $2-3 per call -- a few rounds of sending and receiving e-mails are pretty affordable.

Even non-Verizon Wireless subscribers, though, can use Verizon's JetConnect service, available on all United domestic flights and on some Continental (www.continental.com/travel/inflight/connectivity/airfone/jetconnect.asp) and US Airways (www.usairways.com/travel/inflight/jetconnect) planes.

JetConnect lets you instant message (using AIM, ICQ, MSN or Yahoo!) with or send SMS text messages to folks on the ground for a mere $5.99/flight, a fun way to pass time or keep in touch. If you're really bored, JetConnect also provides some limited news, sports, stock and weather information.

For an extra $10/flight, you can also send and receive small (5K) e-mail messages via AOL, Earthlink, Hotmail, Juno, Outlook Web Access, or any POP3-based e-mail service. (For messages over 5K, they charge you 10 cents per kilobyte -- just don't go there.)

Mail will be sent and delivered every 15 minutes, and you'll access your mail through a special JetConnect Web page, not through your normal e-mail client. You'll get to see the titles and sizes of messages before you download them, to avoid paying more than you want to. Sure, it's s-l-o-w, but you're on a p-l-a-n-e. You have t-i-m-e.

Frequent flyers who are also Verizon Wireless subscribers can get unlimited JetConnect service for a mere $10/month.

To get a free trial JetConnect session, head here: www22.verizon.com/airfone/jetconnect/jc_intro.html.

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