Having the Wrong Conversation

In-flight cellphone use is safe, and the U.S. should enable the service.

The Associated Press

Airlines can and should be able to make their own choice regarding voice services, based on passenger demand.

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We’ve been providing tried and tested cellphone connectivity to airlines across Europe, Asia and the Middle East for nearly six years, but the United States remains the one notable country yet to enable the service. Our connectivity solution is available on almost 400 flights every day on major carriers including Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Aer Lingus, and this number is growing weekly. Many of these flights are traveling to and from U.S. destinations, and even though the service is currently switched off in U.S. airspace, we know that U.S. subscribers are using their cellphones mid-Atlantic. In fact, around 20 percent of connected passengers on our flights bound to the United States are accessing the service from U.S. wireless carriers, to send text messages, browse the web and make calls.

The current ban was introduced over 20 years ago due to concerns over interference with ground networks, long before the days of in-flight connectivity. Today, to use your cell in an aircraft cabin, an approved in-flight cellphone system must be installed – it only operates above 10,000 feet and ensures cellular devices transmit at minimum power.

[Read Veda Shook: Flight Attendants Say No to Cellphones]

If the ban is changed, it will allow the use of cellphones in-flight, but only if the aircraft is fitted with the necessary technology. It wouldn’t mean you would be free to use your phone on any aircraft. U.S. airlines would have the option of installing the equipment and offering cellphone services within any limits set by bodies such as the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The system is safe – the FAA has certified it for use on most Boeing airframes and the FAA’s European equivalent, the EASA, has done the same for Airbus aircraft. What’s more, Boeing is already rolling out aircraft from its Seattle headquarters fully fitted with cellphone connectivity, albeit these are being delivered to airlines outside the United States.

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If a carrier decides to install the service, then passengers could use their existing devices and not be limited to just signing up for Wi-Fi. Ultimately it means more choice for airline passengers.

Voice calling in-flight is an emotive subject. Most airlines outside the U.S. choose to operate voice, and in nearly six years of operation we haven’t had any issues. On some aircraft, however, you cannot make or receive a call – the airline made this choice without regulatory or legislative intervention.

[See a collection of political cartoons on airport security.]

Airlines can and should be able to make their own choice regarding voice services, based on passenger demand. The average length of an in-flight call is just two minutes. What’s more, the technology only allows a certain number of passengers to make a call at any one time, so a cabin full of passengers talking on their phones is not the reality. Importantly, flight attendants are also in full control of the service and can simply turn it off at any time, should they need to.

Demand for the “quiet” services, i.e. text and data, far outstrips voice. In fact data usage has grown 10-fold in the last 12 months. Some passengers like the added benefit of being able to check their voicemail or make a quick call to say good night to the kids, but most are using the service to check emails or to send text messages.

The United States has lagged behind the rest of the world on this issue. Its airlines should be given the opportunity to provide the same services to passengers that their international competitors do today.