Up in the Sky! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Jack Goeken's Airfone!

updated 12/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 01:00AM

Did you hear the one about the traveling salesman who couldn't make it home for dinner? (Raised eyebrow.) He called his wife and told her he was in a holding pattern over JFK. And she believed him. (Snicker.)

Hold that snicker. Since October, traveling salesmen and anybody else flying on 10 major airlines have been able to make phone calls from 35,000 feet. Insert a major credit card into a phone mounted on the plane's bulkhead, take the receiver back to your seat and dial. At $7.50 for the first three minutes and $1.25 for each minute thereafter, users can expect a connection as clear as anything on earth. So far the phones have been a hit with novelty seekers and executives, who are hailing them as a boon to business.

The businessman who stands to benefit most is John "Jack" Goeken, 50, a Midwestern entrepreneur who has spent most of the past seven years getting his Airfone off the ground. The obstacles included getting FCC approval and airline cooperation (reportedly the carriers will receive commissions of up to 12 percent of call volume), and installing—at a cost of $50 million—37 ground stations and other equipment that makes it possible to call anywhere in the U.S. One survey suggested that, with 340 million passengers flying each year, Goeken's company, which is partly owned by Western Union, could eventually gross half a billion dollars annually.

Goeken, a Lutheran minister's son who still lives in his hometown of Joliet, Ill., is no stranger to high-flying ambition—or spectacular success. In 1963, while working as a radio repairman, he conceived of building a microwave long-distance network that could compete with AT&T. After Goeken won a lengthy court battle in 1967, his company, MCI, grew into a communications giant. In 1974 he left MCI with stock that came to be worth more than $50 million and began to work on the Airfone.

Goeken is one of his own best customers. Between business appointments, he flies only in Airfone-equipped planes and is rarely able to spend more than a few days at the nine-room home he shares with wife Monalisa, 49, who worked as a secretary to help pay for his battle against AT&T (Daughter Sandra, 27, is now an Airfone VP.) He hopes to develop portable models that receive as well as make calls anywhere in the world, and is also working on a wristwatch health monitor. If his plans seem as oversize as his 300-pound frame, they don't faze Goeken—or anyone who has seen him work. Says Washington lawyer Michael Bader, who helped him fight AT&T, "He's just like rising yeast. Nothing's going to stop him."

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