In-Flight Cellphone Calls May Finally Be Ready For Takeoff

Image courtesy of Kerry Lannert

You know that woman on the mall scream-talking into her cellphone? She could be on your next flight — well, maybe in a few years. After decades of prohibiting airline passengers from yakking away on their cellular devices from 20,000 feet up, federal regulators are mulling the idea of allowing travelers to make cellphone calls while in flight. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that flights could get a bit more chatty, as the Department of Transportation announced Thursday it was considering eventually allowing in-flight calls from airline passengers.

The key word here is “eventually,” as in those phone calls could be years away. In order to change the current ban, the DOT will have to study the feasibility of such calls and analyze public comments.

Still, it marks an about-face for aviation regulators, who just two years ago began working on their own cellphone call ban when word began to travel that the Federal Communications Commission would pull back its own rules on the calls.

More than 20 years ago, the FCC established the no-cellphone rule out of concern about possible interference with wireless networks on the ground — something that’s less of an issue today.

The DOT says it began thinking of rolling back the ban as technology improves and WiFi calls become more feasible.

In fact, some passengers have already placed calls via Skype, Google Voice, and other voice over internet protocols services.

The WSJ reports that the DOT’s potential rule change wouldn’t exactly mean that all 300 or so passengers are talking on their phone — although that’s possible.

Instead, the ability to call would come with two caveats. First, airlines would really hold the power, having the option to provide in-flight call service. Second, passengers must be informed if their flight allows calls well in advance.

While airlines would have the option to ban the calls on their particular flights, the WSJ suggests that the option to provide service could be yet another way for carriers to impose fees on passengers.

Despite the DOT’s apparent openness to changing the rules, the agency says the public input gathered in the past two years shows that “a substantial majority of individual commenters expressed opposition to voice calls on the grounds that they are disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.”

Additionally, the WSJ reports that some industry officials believe allowing voice calls would pose privacy and deceptive marketing problems.

If airlines didn’t provide advance notice that calls were being allowed, official theorize that other passengers could be unfairly surprised or harmed. As for privacy, you never know what someone might say on the phone, and with a fellow traveler sitting inches from you, they’ll likely be privy to your entire conversation.

So far, airlines have viewed the proposal cautiously, with United Airlines saying it would “carefully evaluate the views of our customers and crew members on this topic.”

Delta Air Lines and JetBlue said they would continue to prohibit the calls.

Travel advocacy group Travelers United tells the WSJ that passengers have expressed that “nobody likes the concept of voice calls on planes.”

The Association of Flight Attendants took a more staunch opposition to the possible change, saying anything short of banning all voice calls is “reckless,” and that it threatens security and increases the possibility of conflict between passengers.

The always opinionated industry group Airlines For America tells the WSJ that it doesn’t believe the matter should be left up to regulators, and should instead be decided by individual airlines.