Cell Phones on Planes? No Problem

Other countries show in-flight phone use is not the horror story most imagine.

A passenger checks her cell phone before a flight, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, in Boston.

The FCC should approve the concept of inflight wireless service in American aircraft.

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For many frequent flyers, the only situation more cringe-worthy than sitting next to a crying baby is the thought of allowing unfettered cell phone use on planes.

But the Federal Aviation Administration recently gave the official word that there is no technical reason to forbid the use of on-board mobile systems and cell phones – in other words, there is no interference with aircraft systems. Today, the Federal Communications Commission will consider proposed rules recognizing that mobile devices do not interfere with aircraft equipment.

Before we all jump to a rousing "no," it would be useful to look at systems that have been, and are, in existence. In non-U.S. environments, cellular systems that allow texting, email and voice have been used aboard aircraft for more than five years. Emirates has provided that service for almost all of its long-haul flights: daytime, nighttime and red-eye. EU and U.K. airlines are also providing in-flight cellular services on a growing number of aircraft.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

With all of that, the FAA reports that foreign civil air authorities surveyed in a recent study report no passenger "air rage" or "flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations."

The FAA report and anecdotal evidence holds there were few, if any, complaints about a passenger being too loud; in fact, experience overseas indicates that the average call is one and a half to two minutes in length.

Why haven't some folks' worst thoughts about cell use in the cabin come true? The most obvious reason is the cost. According to overseas providers, the cost for using the service is between three and four U.S. dollars per minute, so phone calls tend to be highly directed and specific – not the languid chit-chat many people fear.

Another reason foreign airlines haven't had an issue with the in-flight wireless is that many voice customers use the service in ways that don't require talking – such as checking their voicemail. That process is almost entirely accomplished by listening, not talking.

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In addition, non-U.S. civil air authorities report to the FAA that people use their cellphones for data – texting and emailing – far more than they do voice calls. Some foreign air authorities estimate data use outpaces voice use 10 to 1.

AeroMobile, a company that provides in-flight wireless connectivity outside the U.S., says that more than 80 percent of users do not use voice at all, whereas less than 5 percent of users use only voice. Overall, AeroMobile says, when an airline has activated voice, the numbers of calls per flight is less than six, and the average length of a call is short.

Now that passengers outside of the U.S. have had positive experiences, many value the ability to use cell phones on planes. And American plane manufacturer Boeing is planning for this future -- Boeing is now delivering new foreign aircraft with the technology installed for in-flight wireless mobile service. It is expected that within the next three years nearly every aircraft will have that capability.

But just because an airline has a capability, that does not mean it has to permit the service. Airlines make choices about when data and voice will be enabled on a plane. For instance, some choose to never allow cellular calls, or turn the system on or off depending upon the route or time of day. The control rests with airline's policy and the cabin crew, who can enable the system – or not.  

[Read Susan Milligan: No Phones on the Plane, Please]

The FCC has the authority and the duty to make certain that the technical aspects of new technologies do not interfere with legacy systems. It also has the duty to make certain that new technologies are available to the widest number of Americans. It does not have the authority nor the duty to make cultural, marketing or economic judgments on behalf of the companies that provide services.