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Voice calls from planes: A social debate, not a technology dilemma

Matt Hamblen | Dec. 16, 2013
FCC to allow public comment on removing an in-flight calling ban, but U.S. airlines say passengers don't want voice calls

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Friday that 60% of Southwest's passengers in surveys oppose voice calls during flights. "The vast majority of our customers don't want cell phone calls in flight," he said during an interview on CBS This Morning. "If our customers don't want it, our employees won't want it either. It's an inconvenience to be in such close quarters and overhearing a loud conversation ... It's not a significant safety question at all."

Delta Air Lines has cited overwhelming customer opposition to voice calls on planes and has a ban against such calls. Other airlines have said they are studying the issue.

U.S. House and Senate lawmakers have introduced legislation to ban passengers from talking on cell phones during flights. One measure to limit device use, introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is called the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act.

There is also support for the FCC's changing the regulation, including from the Telecommunications Industry Association, which notes that in countries allowing phone use, the calls usually last less than two minutes with only a few people making them at once. Some of the voice calls are made by passengers checking voicemail, without the passenger doing any talking.

Foreign airlines that allow phone calls are poised to extend that permission in the U.S. if the FCC lifts its ban, but analysts believe it's pretty clear that such competitive pressure won't induce U.S. airlines to go along.

British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air France, KLM, Emirates, Aeroflot and Virgin Atlantic allow voice calling, but Lufthansa and Aer Lingus do not.

The in-flight voice services of those airlines use small cellular base stations onboard planes called picocells, which communicate with the main cell network via satellite to reduce interference. That's the category of technology that Wheeler described as making it possible to lift the FCC ban.

In October, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted a longtime ban on using personal devices at takeoff and landing below 10,000 feet, provided the devices remain in airplane mode, which means they aren't connected via Wi-Fi, a wireless technology now widely available on U.S. airlines. The FAA's action means a device could stay on during an entire flight without interfering with a plane's electronics and communications as once feared. Several airlines immediately adopted the policy change.

Conceivably, in-air Wi-Fi could be used as a means to send Internet Protocol voice calls, or even video calls or a service like Skype, but that ability is usually not allowed over Wi-Fi, and airlines would probably ban that approach if they also decide to ban cellular calls.

Wheeler described how an onboard access system would give an airline total control over what type of mobile services to permit, even giving passengers the ability to send texts and emails, surf the Web and make phone calls without the need to sign up for Wi-Fi. That's because the signal would be managed over the cellular network.


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