Cell Phones

Gadget glitch at ORD Airport? The Geek Squad is there.

geek squad at ORD

Pretty much everyone travels with an electronic gadget -or three – these days, and sometimes those gadgets get finicky.

If that’s what’s happening when you’re at Chicago O’Hare International Airport from now through December 23rd, there’s free help at the ready.

Best Buy Geek Squad Agents are stationed in O’Hare’s Concourse H from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST daily offering free tech tips and gadget advice, complimentary service on handheld devices, charging stations and tablets and desktop workstations for surfing the web, playing games or shopping for last-minute gifts.

geek squad

Not near Concourse H? Don’t fret. The Geek Squad is sending agents out into the terminals will backpack charging stations and advice.

Got a gadget glitch at the ORD Shoe Hospital, the airport’s aeroponic garden or while waiting for your meal at Tortas Frontera? Tweet to @GeekSquad with #MissionORD in the message and they’ll come to you.

24/7 donuts at Denver Airport’s new cell-phone lot

Construction is underway at Denver International Airport to replace the old cell phone lot with a service oasis called “Final Approach.”


Rendering of Denver International Airport’s new cell-phone waiting lot and amenity oasis.


According to airport spokesman Heath Montgomery, the new waiting lot will be across from the original lot and have 269 parking spaces as well as free Wi-Fi, a kid’s play area, indoor seating complete with iPads built into tables, indoor restrooms and flight info boards in the parking lot and inside.

There will also be four new restaurants: a 24-hour drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts, a Subway, a Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and a ZPizza, which will have organic ingredients and gluten-free option on the menu.

Opening day is set for sometime in September.

Airports improve the pick-up experience. With cellphone lots.


When grandma is flying in for a special occasion, you’ll find a spot in the airport’s short-term parking garage, go into the terminal and wait where you’ll be sure to see her when she exits the secure area.

But if it’s “just” a friend coming in for the weekend or a spouse coming home from a quick business trip, these days you’re likely to wait in your car in the cellphone lot, have your friend or family member call you when they’ve landed and then drive over and make a quick pick-up at the curb.

Cellphone lots offering free, short-term parking near airports are now available at most large, medium and many small airports. But just ten years ago, none of these lots even existed. Their presence at airports is the result of two post-9/11 trends we now take for granted: heightened concerns about security outside the terminals and the growing number of people using cellphones.

After 9/11, motorists waiting for passengers to arrive were no longer allowed to clog up roadways outside airport terminals by idling for a long time at the curb, or leaving a car parked outside baggage claim and running inside to greet a passenger. It’s hard to believe now, but in the “old days,” many airports would let you do that.

To cut down on congestion caused by drivers who instead began circling terminal lanes over and over, in 2004 airports such as Los Angeles International and Seattle-Tacoma International came up with the idea of directing drivers to free, off-site parking lots where they could wait for an arriving passenger with a cellphone to call for a pick-up. At least a dozen airports had cellphone waiting lots by the end of 2004 and today it’s rare – and irritating – to find an airport without one.

“Security concerns and technology have definitely driven the rise of this airport amenity” said Debbie McElroy, spokesperson for ACI-NA, the organization that represents most North American airports.

But so has economics. In the past, many airports gave drivers a grace period in the parking garage, anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, to allow them to go into the terminal and meet a passenger. But most of these free parking sessions have been eliminated as airports try to maximize revenue generated from their parking garages. “Airports still want to provide good service to their communities,” said McElroy, “so when they cut free parking they’ll often add a cellphone waiting lot nearby.”

And while many cellphone lots are put on property an airport wasn’t using for anything else, the lots do have costs. “You have to establish them, maintain them and make sure you have periodic security checks,” McElroy said. “And in some airports, the lots are on land that could otherwise be put to use generating some sort of revenue.”

But cellphone lots are now so popular that many airports are now expanding theirs and adding amenities for waiting drivers such as free Wi-Fi, vending machines, restrooms (portable and permanent) and electronic reader boards displaying up-to-date flight arrival information.

At Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, community outreach coordinator Allan Siegel says the airport offers a flight-status screen as well as emergency services for vehicles with a flat tire or dead battery. And at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, there are flight information display monitors, restrooms and regular food truck service offering Mexican food, Panini sandwiches, salads, appetizers and drinks.


Tampa International Airport has vending machines, restrooms, real-time flight information, free Wi-Fi, and electric vehicle charging stations in its cellphone lot and, before the holidays it began a 30-day experiment with having food trucks on-site as well, a different one each day.

The experiment has been such a success that the trial period has been extended. The airport is even posting the food truck schedule on its Facebook page.

“Other airports are watching Tampa to see how successful they are in doing this,” said McElroy, “And I think there’s probably room for other airports to contract with vendors to offer more services and amenities at their cellphone lots as well.”

What others kinds of services and amenities might be added?

Tim O’Krongley, assistant aviation director for the San Antonio Airport System, said there’s been some discussion about adding food truck service at San Antonio International Airport. And when Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opens a new, larger permanent cellphone lot next spring, free Wi-Fi and some food options may be added as well.

But here are some other options that might make cellphone lots even more enticing: drive-through espresso stands, exercise stations, playgrounds, fresh flower stands and coin-operated car washes and vacuums to encourage drivers to clean up their cars before going in for the pick-up.

What amenities would you like to see at an airport cellphone waiting lot?

(Photos courtesy Tampa International Airport)

(My story: Airports improve the pick-up experience first appeared on USA TODAY)

Cellphones on airplanes? Debate continues.

Should passengers be allowed to use their cellphones on airplanes? In the U.S. it’s not allowed. Outside the United States, some carriers already allow it.

Here’s my recent msnbc.com article on the topic.  After you read it, please add your vote to the on-line survey .

(Last time I checked, 85% of voters said “On airplanes, everyone should just shut up and fly.”

What do media magnate Arianna Huffington and Hollywood heartthrob Josh Duhamel have in common? They’ve both been busted for using their cell phones on airplanes.

Over the weekend, on a New York-bound flight from Washington, D.C., Huffington reportedly failed to turn off her mobile device, inciting the ire of an unimpressed cabin mate. Last month, Josh Duhamel was escorted off a plane in New York because he wouldn’t turn off his BlackBerry.

These high-profile skirmishes are two of the latest examples in the debate over whether to allow in-flight cell phone conversations.

In Europe, the Middle East and Asia, airlines that wire planes for connectivity can install special equipment to allow passengers to use their own cell phones to make and receive calls.

Domestic airlines own about 90 percent of the world’s connected planes, but federal regulations still ban the use of in-flight mobile calls.

And while Uncle Sam doesn’t outlaw mid-air communications made using Skype or other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, every U.S. carrier offering broadband has directed service providers such as Aircell/Gogo and Row 44 to block all voice calls and disable the VoIP function.

The disconnection may get wider.

At the end of 2010, more than 2,000 airplanes were wired for connectivity. “We expect that number to increase by 50 percent this year, to roughly 3,000 planes worldwide,” said Amy Cravens, a market analyst for In-Stat.

With more international carriers jumping on the connectivity bandwagon, much of that growth will likely be represented by jets owned by airlines planning to, or already providing, mobile phone service.

And unless something changes in the U.S., some analysts worry the only travelers who will be unreachable by mobile phone will be those flying in U.S. airspace.

International travelers chat away

After deciding that mobile phones posed no threat to safety, the European Aviation Safety Agency lifted its ban on in-flight cell phone use in 2007.

Since then, OnAir, AeroMobile and a variety of their equipment partners have been working with many international airlines to install equipment that allows mobile phone calls in addition to other entertainment and communication services.

Oman Air, Egypt Air, Libyan Airlines, Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian are among the airlines that currently offer in-flight voice calls on many of its aircraft. British Airways allows mobile phone use on a single route: an all-business class flight between London and New York. Malaysia Airlines and others are conducting trials before committing to a formal rollout of a mobile phone service.

“Emirates is the airline everyone is watching with regard to passenger acceptance of in-flight calls; and of course, whether the service is commercially viable,” said Raymond Kollau, a market and trend analyst for Airlinetrends.com. The carrier operates 90 jets equipped with in-flight connectivity.

“People have been able to use their mobile phones on our planes for about three years now,” said Patrick Brannelly, Emirates’ vice president for product, publishing, digital and events.

Cell phone users made between 15,000 and 20,000 calls per month from Emirates flights in 2010, Brannelly said. “Each call averaged about two minutes. And during that year we had only one complaint,” he said. “Now the complaint we’re hearing from passengers is why we don’t have the mobile phone service on every aircraft.”

But not all international carriers are rushing to provide the service.

Based on feedback from a 2008 test of in-flight mobile phone service, Air France spokesperson Karen Gillo said the airline now considers mobile phone calling “a future option … [We] don’t have any current plans to implement it fleet-wide.”

Ryanair offered in-flight mobile calling for a while on 50 aircraft, Kollau said. “However, OnAir, who provided the service, decided to stop the partnership reportedly because of a dispute in revenue sharing.”

While Lufthansa recently relaunched its FlyNet onboard Internet system, which could allow voice communication, the airline’s research suggests it’s not a good idea. “Repeated surveys among our customers show that our passengers value a quiet environment without cell phone usage,” said spokesperson Christina Semmel.

Cathay Pacific Airways, though, is determined to offer voice calling to passengers. The airline offers broadband Internet service, and supports BlackBerrys and other smartphones. “When we tested this suite of services with our passengers, all were popular, but voice calling was certainly the most polarized,” said Alex McGowan, head of product for the airline. “We recognize that some passengers are against the concept, and we will ensure that their fears around the ‘nuisance’ factor are not realized.”

Calling U.S. carriers

Back in the states, the regulatory ban and public debate over in-flight phone calls continues, but opposition may be waning.

In 2005, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics asked about 1,000 households if, barring safety issues, cell phones should be allowed on airplanes. Thirty-nine percent said “definitely” or “probably.” Four years later, nearly 48 percent of respondents gave the same answers.

The “Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace” Act of 2008, the so-called Hang-Up Act, was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but never became law. However, parts of that proposal, which sought “to establish prohibitions against voice communications using a mobile communications device on commercial airline flights” could end up in another bill that comes before the new Congress.

The Association of Flight Attendants opposes the use of cell phones in the cabin. “As first responders, we must be able to assess the cabin for any suspicious activity. If 50 passengers are on their cell phones, holding 50 separate conversations, it makes it increasingly difficult to identify any potential threat to the safety and security of the cabin,” said Veda Shook, president of AFA International.

Those phone conversations may be taking place before the jet takes off, but Mary Kirby, senior editor for Flight International, said flight attendants won’t have to deal with them in the air. “There are a finite number of communication lines — typically six to 12 lines per aircraft — which limits the number of simultaneous calls at any one time,” she said. “And aircraft noise drowns out much of the sound.”

As for passengers worried about having to listen to a seatmate yapping away on the phone, costly roaming charges usually dissuade long phone calls. And although a Southwest passenger was recently charged with misdemeanor battery for striking a teenager who didn’t turn off his iPhone when requested, Kirby said: “I am not aware of a single issue of air rage due to in-flight cell phone use.”

Paperless boarding passes: benefit or bother?

We’ve all become accustomed to checking in for our flights on-line and printing out our boarding passes at home or at an airport kiosk on our way to the security checkpoint.

Now the TSA is working with five airlines and 70 airports to test paperless boarding passes.

Here’s how it works: When a traveler checks in on-line the airline emails a boarding pass in the form of a 2-D barcode that can be downloaded to a smartphone. The barcode on the phone can be scanned at the security checkpoint and by the airline gate agent; just like a paper pass.

It’s sound great, doesn’t it?

. But as I wrote in my most recent msnbc.com column – Going paperless: Tech-savvy air travelers on board – it’s probably not a good idea to disconnect your printer just yet. Electronic passes aren’t accepted everywhere. And they’re not fool-proof. “One of the first times I used one, my phone browser refreshed and I lost the boarding pass 30 seconds before boarding,” recalls Walter Hopgood, a frequent business traveler from Damascus, Oregon.

Path to paperless

Some airlines in Europe, Canada and Asia have been using paperless boarding passes since early 2007, but the United States has been behind the curve on adopting the new technology.


“We were slower to get Internet access on cell phones, slower to get affordable data plans on cell phones and slower than Europeans to start using cell phones for accessing data,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research.  But it’s also because the TSA has been very cautious, says Catherine Mayer, vice president of airport services at SITA, an information technology company serving the aviation industry. “The agency had additional security requirements it wanted airlines to meet before it would allow paperless boarding to be introduced here.”

Continental, the first airline to work up software to meet TSA’s authentication standards, kicked off the TSA’s pilot program for paperless boarding in December, 2007. Now the test program includes five U.S. airlines (Alaska, American, Continental, Delta and United), 71 domestic airports and Frankfurt Airport in Germany.

“Airlines are able to streamline the airport experience for passengers,” said Justin Taubman, the program manager for TSA’s mobile boarding pass program. “And the TSA is able to enhance the security of the boarding passes.”

Good to go?

While electronic boarding passes do save paper and time while heightening the TSA’s ability to detect fraudulent boarding passes, the pilot program is not glitch-free.

Some passengers encounter scanners with spent batteries or security-checkpoint staffers untrained or uninterested in the mobile pass pilot program.  When Justin Meyer of Kansas City showed up at 5 a.m. at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., security checkpoint armed with his electronic boarding pass, a TSA employee pressed him for paper. “I didn’t have it,” Meyer recalled, “so I had to wait about 10 minutes while they found the scanner and plugged it in.”

Other travelers have stored a paperless pass on a smartphone that has lost its charge. Or they’ve sailed through the TSA checkpoint paper-free, only to discover that an airline is using a gate without a scanner. Or they’ve discovered some airlines only deliver one paperless pass per smartphone — and that won’t work if you’re traveling with a family of four.

“Like any new technology or service, there needs to be a transition period when everyone is learning the way to proceed,” said Steve Lott of International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.  And so for now, notes Shashank Nigam of the airline consulting firm, Simpliflying, “Paperless boarding may very well remain an early adopter thing until all airlines and airports fall in line.”

That may not be too far off. TSA’s Justin Taubman says the agency is currently working with vendors to develop equipment for a new boarding pass scanning system. “Once the new Credential Authenticating Boarding Pass Scanning System, or CAT/BPSS, is in place,” he said, “the pilot project will become an official TSA program.”

And we’ll have to learn a new acronym.

You can read my original column – Going paperless: Tech-savvy air travelers on board – and see some reader comments – on msnbc.com.