In-flight Cell Phoning Is an Awful Idea

Posted in: Technology Law

I am a frequent flyer, typically traveling more than a hundred thousand miles every year, and a long-time member of the million-mile club (they stop counting after the first million). Flying is no longer much fun. But it will be much worse when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does what it is planning to do: authorize cell phone calling during domestic flights.

Of course, the FCC has not yet said that it is going to open this portal to in-flight hell. In fact, the formal proceedings regarding this change have just started. But let me be the first to tell you that it is a done deal. The FCC will approve domestic cellphone calls during domestic flights, and relatively soon.

Let me explain why I know that this change will be approved, although no clear-thinking American wants this service. A recent poll shows opposition to the change ranging from between 48 to 78 percent, depending on how much flying the responder did (and if you are pondering the views of those who do believe that this is a good idea, remember that about twenty percent of Americans believe the earth revolves around the sun, almost twenty-five percent believe ghosts exist, and forty-eight percent believe that we have been visited by beings from other planets.)

The FCC Will Say Yes to In-flight Mobile Calling

On December 12, 2013, the FCC voted 3-to-2 to consider whether it should authorize airlines to install equipment that will make it possible to have inflight telephone calling at above 10,000 feet, after takeoff, and before landing. On December 13, 2013, the FCC published (and posted) its proposed rule change “Expanding Access to Mobile Wireless Services,” Docket No. 13-301.

The fifty-page explanation setting forth the proposed rule change, in a nutshell, says that they have authorized airlines to allow passengers to use Wi-Fi tablets and smart phones (in airplane mode), along with eBooks, laptops, and the like, and it is working out great. Their rule prohibiting cell phoning is a patchwork of old rules, going back to 1921, but times have changed. In fact, the FCC points out that forty different foreign airlines currently allow cell phone use on flights.

If the proposed rule change does not read like a done deal for you, read the FCC’s (more reader friendly) “FAQ on Proposals to Expand Consumer Access to In-flight Mobile Services.” The answers to the thirteen questions in this summary all but say that the FCC is going to authorize such inflight calls, but it will be up to the airlines to decide if they wish to do it. There is a wonderful phrase that runs throughout this FAQ, repeatedly, regarding how the airlines will resolve this matter once they are given the okay. The FCC believes the airlines will decide “in consultation with their customers whether to permit the use” of cell phones inflight. Sure. Yeah, right! When was the last time any airline consulted with you about anything?

If you know Washington, this rule change looks like a request from the industry that would profit from re-jiggering and re-fitting thousands of airplanes for cell phone reception. Who do you think is backing this move? The Telecommunications Industry Association, which is the Washington lobbying group representing the folks who would profit big time from this rule change. More strikingly, it appears this group has a very receptive ear with the current chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable business. Wheeler is a guy who understands the telecommunications industry, and I suspect that he feels that he cannot ignore his old friends.

Notwithstanding the overwhelmingly negative public feedback I have little doubt that the FCC will say it is their technical duty to keep American aviation in sync with the rest of the world, and approve this rule change. They are just going through the ritual in order to make it happen. There is hope, however, for those of us in the overwhelming majority who believe that this is an awful idea.

The Department of Transportation Gets the Message and Will Say No

The proposed FCC rule change does make the following clear, however: “These rule changes would give airlines, subject to applicable Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (DoT) rules, the choice of whether to enable mobile communications services using an Airborne Access System and, if so, which specific services to enable.”

In short, DoT, which represents the flying public, can kill this rule before it goes into effect.

My hope rests with DoT, which is run by someone who did not arrive in Washington, DC in a corporate jet, and whom I suspect does not fly in the first class pods of wide-body planes, sealed off from hundreds of other passengers. I am referring to the Secretary of Transportation, who is a former city councilman and Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, Anthony Foxx.

At the first whiff of the FCC’s action, Foxx said, wait just a minute here: “We believe USDoT’s role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers. USDoT will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls,” Foxx said in his statement to POLITICO. “As part of that process, USDoT will give stakeholders and the public significant opportunity to comment.” Is there any doubt that a former (and possible future) public office holder might be more sympathetic to the public than the telecommunications industry and its high-paid lobbyists are?

POLITICO makes it very clear that this is a contest between (1) the big money in the telecommunications industry, if not the airlines who are largely staying quite except Southwest and Delta, against (2) the in-flight attendants and the flying public, who oppose this idea. In Washington, only a fool would bet against the big money. So while DoT may say no, the ultimate outcome could well likely be a split decision that everyone can tolerate.

The Likely Resolution: It Will Be Okay to Text, But Not to Talk, on a Plane

Travel writers familiar with foreign airlines report that those who offer both voice and text have had no problem. For example, Travel Weekly reports that Emirates Airline offers both voice and texting on all most of its flights, and it has had about five years of experience doing so. Emirates reports that as many as fifteen percent of its passengers use the mobile service on some flights, with the highest usage occurring on trips longer than 12 hours. Yet most passengers only use it for texting.

“Passengers disturbing others while on the phone has not been an issue,” Emirate Airline told Travel Weekly, and the average call length is only ninety seconds, which, even on quieter aircraft, the cabin noise made it difficult for others to hear others as close as across the aisle. According to this account, Virgin Atlantic reported a similar experience, and received only a few complaints.

But having travelled on many of the foreign airlines that now have voice and texting, if you did not know it already, allow me to tell you the sad truth that foreign travelers are markedly more polite and thoughtful than American travelers. Give American air passengers voice calling at 10,000 feet and above, and I can guarantee you that it will be abused. Take a trip on Amtrak, the cars of which are far louder than any airline cabin, and at times you can still hear a cacophony of cell phone chatter. I once had a stock trader shouting in front of me, and a salesman trying to make his monthly quota behind me as I was traveling from Washington to New York.

What is going to happen is that they will split this matter, and allow texting, which uses the same wireless connections as a telephone. This is a slight step from what is already allowed with wifi, which enables email. (I am told, but have never tested it, that iPhone 5 users can actually make telephone calls in “airplane mode” with their wifi on, by going to Face Time, and merely using the small telephone charm beside the Face Time contract’s name.)

While there will always be people who abuse a situation—NY Jets quarterback Geno Smith recently got tossed from a flight for refusing to stop talking before takeoff—most will be happy to text, particularly if it is not as expensive as wifi, which can run $12 to connect for a flight.

But if and when everyone starts yakking on their cells at 10,000 feet, I have a very attractive solution. I will simply stop flying any airline that allows cell calling.

Posted in: Technology Law

  • Sorry, Mr Dean, but you’re sounding like an old fuddy duddy. I’m almost your age, but I sort of get why these youngsters want to chat.

    It’s a strange new world we live in, but this kind of new freedom to be ‘with’ your dear ones even on the airplane is going to be with us. I hope they make it a seating option with some kind of sound curtain, but mostly I hope the engine noise keeps making it impractical, because you’re too right about the rudeness of most Americans. I even think our sometimes aggressive determination to ignore strangers, even polite ones, has become something of a national trait…

    Then again, I’ve pretty much quit flying. In my case, it was mostly the intrusive security precautions that deterred me, but the general conditions of coach seating were also pretty persuasive.

  • Nathan Baker

    By the way Mr. Dean the earth actually does orbit the sun. It also “revolves” on it’s own axis.