The In-Flight Phone is Making a Comeback [Update]

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[Update: Aircell reached out to clarify that its smartphones will be for business aircraft only — executive jets and the like — and there are no plans to bring these phones to commercial airlines. Original story continues below]

If you’ve ever stared at one of those in-flight phones and wondered who the heck uses them, get ready to do it all over again.

Aircell, the company that offers Gogo Inflight Internet, announced what it calls the “world’s first airborne smartphone,” based on the Android operating system with a 3.8-inch display. The phones will replace Aircell’s flush-mounted Axxess handsets, which the company describes as “prolific” even though I can’t recall seeing an airplane phone in years. Verizon Airfone discontinued its service in 2006.

Aircell doesn’t say what you’ll be able to do on the smartphone aside from making calls, but as GigaOM’s Kevin Tofel points out, the smartphone nomenclature could hint at additional services, such as games or web browsing. Effectively, the phone could be an all-purpose device for people who don’t own smartphones, or would rather not use their own handsets in the air.

Still, if the phone’s main purpose is to place calls, there’s a bit of hypocrisy at work. Aircell has tried to block Gogo users from placing Wi-Fi calls over Skype and other VoIP services, and most airlines forbid the practice on the grounds that it’s disturbing to other passengers (or at least that’s what the Federal Aviation Administration says). If Aircell permits in-flight calling for a fee, the passenger sanity argument falls apart.

For now, it’s not an issue. Aircell isn’t shipping these handsets until late this year, and is still working on the GogoBiz voice service that would be required to make calls. Enjoy the sound of silence while you can.