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Who Will Make the Call on Inflight Phone Calls?

Who Will Make the Call on Inflight Phone Calls?

The FCC recently signaled its willingness to consider allowing the use of cell phones in flight, raising the specter of yet another irritant in the already-stressful travel experience.

The prospect of planeloads of chattering yahoos triggered an outpouring of impassioned pushback on the issue, with groups including the Association of Flight Attendants calling for an outright ban on inflight cell calls.

But ultimately, it’s not the FCC’s call whether U.S. carriers allow cell calls. The FCC’s proposed rulemaking would give the airlines permission to support cell use, but it would be up to individual carriers to decide whether or not to do so.

Unless, that is, Congress intervenes and passes a law banning inflight cell calls altogether.

Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, this week introduced a bill to do just that. His proposed legislation, the “Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act of 2013,” would prohibit cell calls during the inflight portion of all scheduled domestic flights.

According to Shuster:

Let’s face it, airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined. For the most part, passengers are looking for ways to make their flights go by as quickly and quietly as possible. Pilots and flight attendants are focused on ensuring a safe and comfortable flight for everyone onboard. For passengers, being able to use their phones and tablets to get online or send text messages is a useful in-flight option. But if passengers are going to be forced to listen to the gossip in the aisle seat, it’s going to make for a very long flight. For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.

Inflight Cell Calls in Your Future?

So how is this likely to play out?

Based on the FCC’s characterization of the current restrictions as “outdated” and “restricted,” it seems that that organization is very much inclined to remove those restrictions.

It’s more difficult to handicap the chances of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee bill. But members of Congress tend to be frequent travelers, flying regularly back and forth between Washington, D.C., and the states they represent. As Shuster’s remarks suggest, they would be personally affected by unfettered cell use in flight. So I would give the legislation a better-than-even chance of passing.

If Shuster’s bill does not pass, it will be up to the airlines. There would be some market pressure to support inflight calling, to stay competitive with a number of international carriers which allow cell calls. On the other hand, if their decision-making is driven by the needs and wants of their customers, the airlines would simply decline to activate inflight calling capabilities. But that’s a big “if.”

My bet is that inflight calling will be derailed, either by Congress or by the airlines themselves. That’s my hope as well.

Reader Reality Check

What’s your vote, Yea or Nay on inflight cell calls?

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  • peterknight

    Y class will be relatively quiet as the rates would quite high per minute. Good luck to F and J class.

  • Jeremiah Knowles

    I would like to see them allow sms, data service, but not voice service.

  • ryan ash

    I made a few phone calls on my flight to japan go wifi and face time audio flying around alaska/ russia

  • BCM

    I’m trying to find anyone who thinks that calls SHOULD be allowed on flights? Buy stock in Bose and other noise canceling headphone makers if calls are ever allowed.

  • SM

    I work for an airline in which each month over 100,000 voice calls are made onboard our aircraft, guess what, no chaos, no fighting in the aisles.
    Reality check people, you all sit in a departure lounge and “suffer” lots of calls going on around you, you sit on buses and trains where calls happen all the time (at local call rates) in confined space. You even suffer through calls in cinemas.
    Perspective…. none of these events take place with a background noise of 90+Db of wind rushing past you at 500 mile an hour. On top of which after the millions of calls made and received on our aircraft since 2008 the average length of call is still less than 2 minutes, and is actually reducing year on year because most Gen Y and Z’s don’t like to talk, they like to Tweet or snap chat or Facebook.
    If you fly with Wi-Fi you have plenty of other VOIP options available (even if they are suppose to be blocked) to talk if you wish, not to mention the fact that for many years you all sat in domestic US aircraft looking at seat back telephones in the seat back in front of you. Remember there were no riots then either…. Wake up it is 2013….

  • Edgar Numrich

    To “Wake up it is 2013” (and others similar) who must believe that alone is a good thing:

    Wireless voice communication is the 21st century cigarette with all the attendant invasive and noxious side effects. And I’m speaking as someone who matured and worked in the years when everyone (me included) smoked in their offices or cubicles.

    If there is one good thing about kids’ obsession with texting as the favored cell-phone use, it’s at least the relative quiet.

    Taking those two observations together, a “solution” to what’s reasonable and acceptable on airplanes should be clear.

  • Don Fanning

    As someone who worked for one of the companies who provides in-flight telephony I would agree with SM in that in my time working for them that there have not been any incidents that people would cringe at. This includes rollouts with RyanAir, Emirates, Qatar and other airlines.

    There are several factors at play here which make it not as attractive as people think. One is cost – roughly $6-15/minute because it’s satellite based plus all the overhead and markup from carriers due to “roaming”.

    Two is noise. Not just cabin noise but noise from the engine and the air outside the cabin. It’s hard enough to hear inside the cabin without headphones. Now couple that with a cellphone for which not many people use noise canceling headsets. All the noise around you (the engine, the cabin, etc..) is funneled into the microphone and you end up with a conversation on the other end sounding like you’re calling from a hurricane.

    Add satellite lag (cannot change the laws of physics) and other factors like network/spot beam handoffs and you have a recipe for a phone call you rather not be part of for any length of time.

    The system does have the ability to disable voice calls and allow SMS/Text as well as mobile data. The system also has the ability for the cabin crew to turn off voice, texts individually or the whole thing. If anything, I’d rather see these features enabled and installed. Yes, voice caters to the uber-executive but regulatory-wise, it’s probably best suited for those who fly private/chartered aircraft.

    In an airline situation, the times you would see voice calls being used in flight is mainly towards landing with people arranging pickup at the airport – much like what happens when the airplane touches down now when everyone grabs their phones and makes calls prior to reaching the gate.

    It will be interesting to see how it will work here tho should there be a US fleet with cellphone capability. The rest of the world uses GSM for the most part. Here in the US our largest carrier uses CDMA which is an entirely different system. Sure, some AT&T/T-Mobile users will be able to use the system right away but they’re also used to dropped calls as well. Aircraft would have to carry both transceivers for them to work… adding weight which requires more fuel. Certainly they could jump to LTE as most of us are upgrading (however voice traffic is still GSM/CDMA) but even if this does get the green light, I wouldn’t expect to see it right away. The only ones with the leg up are carriers who already have it installed on their fleets which are mainly European and Middle Eastern carriers that happen to fly to the US.

  • angrybuddha

    Let the calls happen or ban them… I don’t care. But make sure the airlines are making the decision unfettered by Congress. The decision should be made based on what the majority of fliers (or majority of flyer dollars) want… not based on what a few so-called small-government Congressmen think.

  • KJinAZ

    Two scenarios for you, separate incidents both involved the person next to me talking loudly on the phone every second on departure and landing until flight attendants yelled at them. Both 5+ hour flights.
    – Teenaged girl.
    – Self important loudmouthed executive.
    Torture. Pure torture.

  • LindyLou

    May we keep the relative quietness of the airplane just as it is. My worst case scenario is the person who wants a really private call hogging the cramped bathroom up front from here to Paris. What a nightmare! Like others, I do not want to hear others private conversations next to my head. Keep cell calls out of the skies.

  • Elisabeth

    Quiet please. Not only would the caller be a nuisance, but they would probably have the call on speaker phone, so we would have the privilege of hearing both sides of the conversation. I can see many a fight happening over this. Just what an airline would not want.

  • ht1

    Thanks for making this logical point. Sure, we don’t want to hear other people talk. But don’t they do this already? Are we proposing that two people sitting side by side on a plane can’t have a conversation? Can we ban babies from crying too? It’s the same thing! I think if the technology for phone calls exists then we’ve got no sound basis for stopping people from using it.

  • Amy Alkon

    Best to know the product before recommending it as some sort of solution. Bose headphones, which I wear about seven hours a day, are great at cutting out noise OTHER THAN conversation.

  • scott

    Inevitably, the government will not stand in the way of in-flight calls and the airlines, struggling to make a buck, will figure out a way to monetize it. The airlines won’t prevent calls based on principle…there are many things they’d do differently if their prime motivation were passenger satisfaction. Since it will likely cost extra, we can probably look forward to more loud business conversations than teenage gossip.