Changing technology that enables travelers to make voice calls over in-flight Wi-Fi systems has led the Transportation Department to take another look and reignite the debate about voice calls in the air.
Inflight cell phone for voice calls use is already permitted by many airlines around the world. Even highly regulated Europe relaxed its ban on flight calls way back in 2008. None have reported any of the mayhem predicted by pundits and politicians.
The current ban on in-flight phone calls was issued by the Federal Communications Commission, not DOT – and that decision was based on issues of interference with navigation systems and ground-based cell phone networks. Today, most aircraft have Wi-Fi technology that is increasingly switching from ground-based to satellite-based communication, and it permits flyers to make calls through Wi-Fi – and that is not covered by the FCC ban.
DOT said it has started a rulemaking proceeding that would not only require airlines to inform customers “from the beginning of the process” (i.e. at the time of booking) when voice calls are permitted on their flights, but also seeks to determine whether the agency should simply ban voice calls outright.
And this rulemaking has nothing to do with safety issues – it’s all about consumer protection.
“DOT believes that allowing voice calls, without providing adequate notice, would be an unfair and deceptive practice,” the agency said. “As technologies advance, the cost of making voice calls may decrease and the quality of voice call service may increase, leading to a higher prevalence of voice calls and a greater risk of passenger harm… 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.”
Passenger harm? DOT doesn’t explain that concern. Is it suggesting that voice calls in-flight would lead to physical fights between the caller and a seatmate who doesn’t want to hear it?
The agency noted that when it looked into allowing voice calls on flights back in 2014, “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.” The airlines’ trade group thinks airlines should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow phone calls, but flight attendants’ unions are opposed to the practice.
Still, several foreign airlines permit voice calls on their flights, and there is little if any evidence that the practice led to fisticuffs or boycotts.
Gogo’s popular inflight wi-fi system has the capability to handle voice calls, but for now, the VOIP calls are blocked on commercial flights. But the ability to use inflight wi-fi for voice calls is a very popular feature on Gogo-equipped private jets. Gogo currently offers free texting (only) on commercial flights for T-Mobile customers.
Elsewhere, airlines that have adopted the onboard technology have the ability to turn voice calling on or off– and some, like Lufthansa, have decided to keep it off. Ryanair, Europe’s largest carrier, experimented with allowing cell phone use on its planes in 2009 and dumped the idea due to lack of interest.
Why don’t people in these other countries yack endlessly on their cell phones on planes if they can? Because using a mobile phone on a plane is not the same as using it on the ground. It’s very expensive... calls cost about $3-$4 per minute– and charges appear on your mobile phone bill.
What’s not clear now is how inflight wi-fi (or VOIP) calling can be regulated onboard, and how it may be priced. In any case, you can bet that it will not be free. And if inflight wi-fi usage (which runs at about 7%) is any indicator, inflight calling will likely not be widespread.
While airlines are said to be studying the issue, most are standing by previous decisions to ban inflight calls.
In any case, if you’d like to share an opinion with them on the subject, go to www.regulations.gov and file comments on docket number DOT-OST-2014-0002.
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