Can You Hear Me Now? The Debate over Cell Calls at 35,000 Feet

So far at least, it has remained the one dependable amenity in today’s constantly changing airline cabins: once wheels are up, cell phones are off. Seats may have gotten narrower, leg, arm and head room tighter, carry-on storage space tinier and food service less predictable, but we are still spared the cacophony of in-flight cellphone conversations at 35,000 feet.

For busy meeting planners, hours in the air without phone service is a decidedly mixed blessing, given the logistics of the business. At the very least, the longer the flight time, the longer the call-back list that awaits you upon landing. Still, would you exchange that inconvenience for the restless gaggle of cell-phone geese while you attempt to catch an in-flight, post-conference snooze? Tough call.

The Federal Communications Commission recently revived that conundrum, voting 3-2 in favor of an initial proposal that would overturn its ban on in-flight use of cell phone for voice calls. The move opens the door for further discussion by the FCC, with the help of input from the public.

The FCC banned in-flight cellphone use in 1991 over concerns that potential interference from cellular ground networks and electromagnetic emissions from onboard cellular chatter could scramble a plane’s communications, flight control and navigation systems. But as cell phone use exploded, changes to mobile technology made the prospect of flight system interference increasingly unlikely.

In its 2012 study of flight data from 11 countries, the FCC concluded that “civil aviation authorities reported no confirmed occurrences of cell phones affecting flight safety on aircraft with onboard cellular telephone base stations.” The FCC subsequently dropped its ban on in-flight use of portable electronic devices.

When the FCC floated the idea of ending the cellular ban in 2014, it met with strong opposition from the Transportation Department and numerous consumer groups, including the Association of Flight Attendants and the Global Business Travel Association, which represents more than 7,000 of the largest purchasers of travel. The opponents didn’t take issue with the outdated flight navigation concerns; they simply didn’t want to open the cabin to cell chatter.

The DOT recently issued its own notice of proposed rule making for the nation’s airlines and flight attendants, stating its intent to protect consumers “from being unwillingly exposed to voice calls within the confines of an aircraft.” While DOT can’t prevent the FCC from one day lifting the in-flight cellular ban, or airlines from doing the same, the rule change it is considering would require airlines who allow in-flight cellular use to notify customers booking flights aboard aircraft with 60 or more seats of its cellular policy before selling them tickets.

“Permitting voice calls on aircraft without adequate notice would harm consumers because of the confined environment and the inability of passengers to avoid the hardship and disruption created by voice calls,” the DOT said.

Airlines for America, a trade group which represents five of the top six U.S. carriers (Delta is the exception), has long argued that the airlines themselves and not the DOT should be free to set their own policies regarding in-flight voice and data. Some airlines overseas have done exactly that for years. Although U.S. airlines are free to allow in-flight calls over Wi-Fi, none currently do.

Bottom line: Until such time as the FCC removes its ban, the odds of cellular chat breaking out at 35,000 feet in a U.S. carrier will remain up in the air.

Photo credits:

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

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