Midair service may be available as soon as this year on some airlines for passengers using European GSM technology. The United States and many other countries bar mobile devices in the air because of concern they could disrupt a plane's instruments.
Under the plan approved Monday, cell phone users could make and receive calls through an onboard base station. They will be allowed to turn their phones on after the plane reaches 10,000 feet, when other electronic devices such as portable music players and laptops are permitted.
But a host of issues remain, from the cost of mid-flight phone service, to backlash from those who dread the thought of being trapped for hours listening to one-sided conversations.
"In-flight mobile phone services can be a very interesting new service especially for those business travelers who need to be ready to communicate wherever they are," said Viviane Reding, the EU's telecommunications commissioner. "However, if consumers receive shock phone bills, the service will not take off."
The European Commission, the EU's executive body, said it will monitor pricing.
The EU also urged airlines to set in-flight phone etiquette.
"Almost everybody will want to use this service. We hope that also some people will still use the aircraft as a moment of tranquility and not disturb other passengers," EU spokesman Martin Selmayr said.
Several airlines, including Air France-KLM, have already launched a trial of in-flight mobile phone services on some European routes.
Germany's Lufthansa, however, said Monday it does not want to introduce the service because its surveys show that a large majority of customers were against it, spokesman Jan Baerwalde said.
"People don't want to be disturbed," Baerwalde said. Lufthansa, however, wants to relaunch Internet access on its planes, a service it had offered from 2004 until the end of 2006.
The EU regulation sets a common standard by which passengers can use mobile phones during flights and airlines will only need to get one license that will apply across the entire 27-nation bloc.
The equipment airlines install must be approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency to ensure the onboard cellular network will not conflict with other in-flight systems.
Selmayr, the EU spokesman, said the phone service will not be available during takeoff, landing or during turbulence. He said the captain and crew of the plane can determine when the system is shut down. Networks would also prevent linkages to ground-based cell stations, providing added security for the flight.
"It doesn't mean you can leave your mobile phones switched on now during the flight, we have to make that absolutely clear," Selmayr said. "First wait what your airline tells you when you board the plane. Until further notice the usual reminders to switch off your mobile phone on the aircraft will remain in place."
Most services that are being rolled out this year are being provided by OnAir, a unit of planemaker Airbus.