Will Cell Phone Usage In-Flight Be the Downfall Of Commercial Aviation As We Know It?

Nov 22, 2013

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After last month’s announcement that flyers would be able to keep their electronic devices on throughout flights, even during takeoff and landing, the FCC has also said it is considering a proposal that would allow passengers to use their cell phones to make phone calls and text on aircraft flying above 10,000 feet (still not during takeoff and landing).

The news has triggered mixed reactions, but I can’t help cringe at the thought of a plane full of chatty businesspeople closing deals and lovesick partners babytalking to each other for hours on end. Maybe I’m overreacting, but my personal experience is that people tend to speak 2-3x louder when talking on their cellphones on airplanes so I don’t think flying would become any more enjoyable with this new found freedom.

Hopefully you won't be seated next to this guy.
Hopefully you won’t be seated next to this guy.

Don’t Hit Speed-dial Just Yet
In order for this to go into effect, airlines would have to outfit their planes with FAA-approved special antennas specifically for this purpose.

In a statement to the press, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was quoted as saying, “Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules.”

This isn’t the first time the FCC has considered such a proposal. One first came up in 2004, though it was later scrapped because the commission could not determine whether phones being used on aircraft would disrupt ground-based wireless networks or flight safety. However, since that time, several other countries have begun to allow cell phone use on flights without incident.

The proposal is set to be discussed at the FCC’s next meeting on December 12, and then it will face a vote before it can go into effect. If it does, it’ll be up to individual airlines to choose whether or not to provide talk and text service to their flyers.

Apart from safety, one major concern is the in-flight experience and how allowing passengers to talk and text would affect it. Delta conducted a study last year that found nearly two thirds of flyers though that the ability to make in-flight phone calls would have a negative effect on their experience.

Two thirds of flyers think their experience will look something like this.
Two thirds of flyers think their experience will look something like this.

Although my gut instinct is to agree – we’ve all sat next to that annoying loud person on the bus or in a restaurant who’s broadcasting their conversation to the entire room, and that definitely makes me nervous – thinking about my experiences on trains and public spaces, people tend to be polite and self-aware. It would also be nice to leverage fast cell phone data over the at-times slow in-flight internet (and avoid the monthly internet fees).

That said, you can more easily get up and move tables or to another train compartment, but there’s no escaping your neighbors on an airplane, and space is even tighter in a lot of cabins, so we’re all going to learn a lot more about our fellow passengers if this rule goes into effect and people start taking advantage of it. Part of me still thinks that the vast majority of people will abide by the rules of common decency and keep talking and volume to a minimum – and it would be nice to have access to a phone to get business done while flying, especially on planes not equipped with WiFi, but I’m a bit anxious about scenes of planes full of people talking on the phone and an incessant chatter on every plane – not to mention middle-of-the-night calls that wake up an entire cabin on overnight flights.

But what do you think?

See also: AP: Loud cellphone talkers next bane of air travelers?

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