Over six years ago, I weighed in on the use of mobile phones onboard commercial airline flights. Back then, I was for it. Today, I’m still for it.
In-Flight Cell Phone Calls: I’m Still For It…
JSX now allows the use of mobile phones in-flight via internet calling. In making this change, JSX becomes the first US carrier to allow the use of telephones in-flight since the GTE/Verizon Airfone days of yesteryear.
Despite warnings of increased air rage, I remain in favor of allowing the discretionary use of onboard telephone calls, particularly if it would be limited to certain flights. Fears over the occasional obnoxious traveler do not supersede the broader benefit that would be made available to all travelers if cell phone use was permitted.
The good news for those who love silence onboard is that the widespread availability of wi-fi means that most business can be documented via text message or email. But there are occasions when phone calls are necessary and I do not think it will nearly be as bad as people imagine.
Thus, what I wrote over six years ago remains largely true today, as far as I can tell. However, I’d welcome your thoughts on the issue as well.
Below are my original thoughts on the matter, which were first published on December 12, 2016.
Should cell phone calls be allowed onboard airplanes? I say YES.
I was awakened last Friday morning to a call from Fox News with an urgent request–can you come into the studio this morning to speak to Shepard Smith about using mobile phones onboard airplanes? I agreed and after finding out I was in favor of using cell phones onboard, the producer warned me that Shepard was against it. The debate was on!
I shaved, suited up, and was driven down to Fox News. Makeup was applied and just as I was ready to sit down in front to the camera, President-Elect Trump started talking…and talking…and talking. What was supposed to have been brief remarks in Louisiana turned into a 40-minute speech. Worse than a bump from an oversold flight, I was bumped off the air! But I can still make the argument to you why cell phones onboard airplanes will not be the end of the world and are actually a GOOD thing.
Onboard Cell Phone Conversations Have Already Been Taking Place for Years Without Drama
For years, carriers in Europe, the Middle East, and Australia have allowed onboard mobile phone access and we have not seen fights break or even tempers flare. This argument I hear all the time – we cannot allow cell phones because there is always “that guy” who won’t shut up and will eventually aggravate “that other guy” and lead to cursing and the exchange of blows.
Folks, this is a straw man. I know Americans are a special breed and flight attendants are deadset against the allowance of cell phone calls, but consider the positive side of putting working cell phones in the hands of troublemakers: first, they are going to speak into their phone instead of speak to you. Second, if they’re talking on their phone it probably means they are not drinking or kicking the seat in front of them. I actually think much of the rage onboard planes derives from being helplessly disconnected from the ground: being able to speak to a friend or loved one in a tense situations like a crammed airplane will cool tensions, not inflame them.
Airfones Prove the Issue is Price, Not the Calls Themselves
Remember that for more than two decades there were telephones in nearly every row of an aircraft called Airfones. With the swipe of your credit card you could dial anywhere in the world.
The problem was not the phones, it was the price — at $20/minute (eventually the rate dropped to $2/minute for Verizon subscribers), is Mona Lisa Vito really going to gab with Vincent LaGuardia “Vinny” Gambini over the wedding? Probably not.
Don’t think that onboard cell phone calls will be free: the airlines are not stupid. JetBlue charges $10/hr for wi-fi fast enough to conduct Skype or other wi-fi based calling [editor’s note: wi-fi is now free on JetBlue]. That’s better than $20/minute but that will still keep onboard conversations to only the ones that truly matter…most of the time at least.
Planes are Already Loud
Screaming babies, engines, and a loud din of conversations are already part of flying commercial. Noise cancelling headphones help to block out most ambient noise and will block out cell phone conversations too. For those without such headphones, you won’t be able to distinguish between a cell phone call and conversations between passengers if you can even hear it over the humming engines.
When I flew Emirates from Los Angeles to Dubai in the spring, a carrier which allows onboard cell phone calls, there was a gentleman two rows ahead of me who spoke on his phone for several hours early on in the flight. I could barely hear him at first then tuned him out completely in just a few minutes.
Phone Calls, Like Wi-Fi, Will Make Us More Productive Onboard
Onboard internet transformed my travel patterns and made me a much more productive person. I used to take only late-night flights on transcontinental routes because I could not afford to be disconnected during peak work hours from the internet. Now I can travel during the day and keep up on work and my clients via onboard internet.
Sometimes, though, I still opt for late night flights because I need to be available to clients in case they run into any hiccups when flying or booking tickets. It sure would be nice to have the ability to make and receive calls on an international flight. As I shared about a recent United flight, I would have paid whatever they wanted in order to use a phone. It ruined my flight to be disconnected!
Phone Calls Can Save Lives…And Marriages
Here’s a draconian example, but last year a woman flying Southwest from New Orleans to Milwaukee received a text message from her husband saying he was going to kill himself. She sent him a text message trying to dissuade him but the door to her aircraft had closed and the safety demonstration was over — a FA sternly ordered her to shut off her phone. By the time she arrived in Milwaukee, her husband had already committed suicide.
Would she have been able to talk her husband out of it if she could have called him? Maybe or maybe not, but I wish she had been given the chance to try.
But even for the road warriors who are away for three out of fours weeks per month, imagine how nice it would be to FaceTime their spouse and children during a long flight. Imagine how nice it would be to say, “Good night honey. I love you. Sleep tight,” face-to-face rather than via email or iMessage. We should be encouraging more conversations like that.
Government Should Focus on Safety
The Federal Government has a vital role in managing air traffic control and ensuring that airlines properly maintain aircraft. Do we really need the government micro-managing airline wi-fi calling policy?
Note that although we have yet to see a definitive study that mobile phone signals cause a disturbance with any onboard aircraft equipment, safety does not really factor into this discussion (other than potential air rage)–we have moved into the realm of wi-fi calling where there is no threat of any kind to the safety of the aircraft.
There will never be a government mandate that cell phones be allowed onboard. It will be up to each airline and Delta and JetBlue have already said it will not allow onboard phone calls if in-flight calls become legal. Consumers will be able to choose what airline works best for them and that is the way the market is supposed to work.
The Department of Transportation reasons that airlines should be compelled to disclose to consumers in advance if their flight will permit passengers to make voice calls using wireless devices and assert they have a statutory authority to enforce that.
The Department believes that consumers would be unfairly surprised and harmed if they learned only after the purchase of a ticket (or, worse, after boarding the aircraft) that the carrier permits voice calls on its flights. If voice calls are allowed on a flight, the DOT proposal requires disclosure the first time that flight is offered or identified to a consumer. No disclosure is required if the flight does not allow voice calls.
I see this as unnecessary: the airlines that offer onboard cell phone calling market it as a selling point:
Airlines do not need to be told to showcase which onboard amenities they will be offering.
How Onboard Cell Phone Calling Will Actually Look
Just like not all flights were smoking, it is highly unlikely you will see cell phone calls permitted on redeye flights or throughout the plane.
The problem with smoking and non-smoking sections was that the whole airplane still smelled like an ashtray and I recognize there will be similar concerns for cell phone and quiet sections onboard planes.
A more likely solution might be to have some flights be wholly cell-phone free while others allow cell phone calls throughout the plane. Think about the many carriers that offer service between LA and New York, some almost hourly. Why not have the 4pm flight cell-phone free and the 5pm flight with cell-phones? Just like the “Men’s Only” United flights with steak dinners and cigar smoking, marketing a cell-phone flight will not only steer consumers toward their desired flight but also have the positive effect of clustering those who like peace and quiet onto one plane and those more talkative or prone to make calls onto another.
The impetus for this discussion is not that any government policy concerning cell phone usage has changed, but the DOT’s is considering whether to regulate wi-fi calling. Right now wi-fi calling is in a regulatory gray area so a carrier could indeed choose to allow onboard calls even now.
In the end, cell phone conversations onboard airplanes will not be the end of the world and anyone who argues that pandaemonium will break out must articulate why this hasn’t happened throughout much of the world that already allows cell phone calls on planes. Not only will onboard calling lead to more productivity and help people speak to the people they need to (instead of you), it will probably not even be something that most are aware of when flying due to headphones, crying babies, and engines.
What do you think?
Special thanks to Gary Leff for helping me think through this issue and coaching me before my (cancelled) interview.