Allowing The Use Of Cell Phones On Planes For Voice Calls Is A Bad Idea, Even If The FAA Says I’m Wrong

A bunch of folks have written about the FCC’s decision to consider (again) the use of cell phones on planes for voice calls.   I had initially decided I wasn’t going to write about it despite having strong feelings, mostly because I didn’t think my strong objections were unique. But, a reporter contacted me seeking information for an article on this issue.  After writing down some thoughts for her, I decided it was worth framing the issue up so you could weigh in.

I was admittedly taken aback by the FCC’s announcement that they were considering allowing in-flight cell phone usage. If the announcement had been that the FCC would allow the use of 3G and 4G cellular data on flights, I wouldn’t have been as surprised. I don’t think this is politically motivated, nor am I aware of any large trade groups that are lobbying hard for cellphone usage on planes.

There will certainly be a vocal minority of folks who lobby for the use of cellphones on planes. I don’t think those folks are likely frequent travelers. They’ll argue that the technology is safe and the world has changed, that there’s a mandate that those who want to stay connected in this fashion should be allowed to. And, there certainly are some compelling arguments to be made. From a business standpoint, staying in contact at all times can be critically important for executives. In case you haven’t seen the news yet (though likely you have since it’s a week or two old), Gogo actually launched a service that allows phone calls from the air using their wifi service. Except, none of the big US carriers opted to take them up on the voice part of the service. I’d be pretty surprised to see this service get adopted by any of the major US airlines they serve, and they serve most of them.

The proponents of cellphone usage on planes would also argue that the ability to stay connected in case of emergencies is critical. As a father of two I can sympathize with this notion.  I couldn’t imagine something happening to one of my family members and knowing the technology was available for me to be in contact and help manage the situation in a tragedy.

The counter argument is how people in our society perform at the extremes. I firmly believe this is the most important issue at hand. Most folks would understand how to properly carry on a conversation while in-flight, doing their best not to disturb their fellow passengers. But, with planes flying fuller and seats much closer together, the invasion of personal space by some folks making phone calls would amplify an already tenuous environment on some long flights. Could you imagine trying to sleep on a red-eye flight while your seat mate tried to talk loud enough to be heard over the din of airplane noise on his cell phone about a business transaction?

Taken a step further, what happens when someone does find out their loved one has been in a tragic accident and demands that the plane be turned around? It may sound unthinkable, but there are certainly worse things that have happened in the past 15 years on airplanes, some that are permanently etched on our collective conscience. We never saw those coming. Some will decry this point of view, saying that I’m afraid of problems that may never materialize, maybe even fear mongering. But, I really don’t think it’s that outrageous to believe that, as a culture, Americans aren’t ready for cell phones on planes.

Another pro-cell phone argument is that the process works just fine in Europe without out-sized customer reaction. That’s certainly true. However, I also don’t see the same amount of stories coming from European publications about rowdy passengers being removed from flights. It seems like a week doesn’t go by anymore without a story about an unruly passenger getting removed from a plane in the US. That’s not the norm in the rest of the world, but it’s become something of a norm here. Just because Europeans may be more largely accepting of this behavior doesn’t mean Americans will. The Chinese have had policy restrictions on how many children a family can give birth to for ages. Could you imagine US citizens accepting such policy with as little revolt as Chinese citizens have shown?

From a functional standpoint, I think the airlines and the unions will be largely against the move for a couple of key reasons. First, as I mentioned above, they likely won’t want to deal with the additional stress of passengers being unruly on the phone and their fellow passengers complaining. Flight attendants have already raised issues of safety, such as customers talking on the phone instead of listening to safety announcements.

Again, I think we need to look further here. Just as with unruly passengers being more prevalent on US flights, so have there been (and continue to be) examples in the US where flight attendants exercise too much authority or act unreasonably. Many are underpaid and overworked and believe they should have a better contract with more benefits.  This frustration boils over into their jobs on a regular basis. Asking them to step in and referee disputes between customers about phone call behavior just isn’t wise. And, we just got rid of the issue where flight attendants had to ask customers to shut off electronics before pushing back from the gate. Now, we’re inviting a similar scenario where the flight attendants will be pitted as the adversary when asking people to stop talking on the phone so they (and others around them) can pay attention to safety videos. Consider also the passenger who tries to be respectful of his seatmates and stands up to make his phone call, walking to one of the galley areas to make his call.

The US airlines are a copycat industry. There’s no truer form of monkey see, monkey do, such that if one airline offered this service and it was seen as a benefit by some customers, the other airlines would be sure to follow.  Admittedly, the roadblocks there are several. First, there’s an actual cost to enabling the use of cell phones on planes. Technology would likely need to be installed on some planes, and likely tested and submitted for approval on some planes as well. In an age where the paying wifi customer isn’t as prevalent as the airlines would like it, they may be reticent to invest money for technology that would allow in-flight cellphone usage.

Second, while they might be in favor of a move to allow cellphone usage in-flight, their unions can make like miserable for them since they already disagree with such a change.  Lastly, there’s the customers. With a frustrated flying public already fed up with fees for all sorts of things that used to be free, cramped planes and lack of comfort on planes, an airline trying to blaze a path on cellphone usage might find widespread customer revolt. That being said, I feel pretty confident that if the FCC allows it, a major airline will jump into the pool to see what the water temperature is. The others will follow.

We’re at a tipping point of sorts in the airline industry. While airlines like Southwest have mostly happy customers onboard, some airlines like United have had a rough go of it the last couple years when it comes to customer satisfaction. An issue like this could be the difference between general unrest and true dissatisfaction/exasperation.

I don’t believe the sky is falling, but I certainly think this is a more significant issue than some make it out to be. And, it’s now an eventuality. Between the cell phone companies who can make more money by providing service and some members of the general public screaming that calls shouldn’t be restricted, this barrier will fall.

Does this mean we see a return of something akin to the smoking sections planes used to have back in the 1980s? I sure hope not.

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The freight train which is in flight cell phone use

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  1. Definitely don’t allow cell phones on planes. If some loud mouth were to engage in a conversation on a cell phone next to me on an already cramped and miserable flight, I might go postal. And people will..
    Solution… sell phone seats with the “Get Smart” style cone of silence readily deployable.


  2. Just like I know of no NFL fan who wants an 18-game regular season, no traveler I know wants mobile phone use allowed on long flights. Other than the mobile phone companies who might make money off of this (and that’s an iffy argument to me, based on their billing model), who is clamoring for this? Regardless, here are a few random thoughts:

    1) If the flight is under 2 hours, carriers should allow mobile phone use. Being on a small plane for only an hour or two with people yakking on their phone is NOT a big deal. If the flight is over 2 hours, disallow mobile phone use.

    2) If a passenger has a bona fide emergency at any time on any flight, carriers should allow them to use their mobile phone.

    3) Carriers might consider allowing mobile phone use only in the back X rows of the plane, sort of like how Malaysia Airlines has a smoking section. If you want to use your mobile phone during a long flight, that’s fine. You have to be seated in the back of the plane.

    Also, I could see one carrier allowing use, others following suit, and then one carrier standing up and saying, “Fly Our Airlines – we do not allow mobile phone use” as a marketing strategy.

    1. David,

      1. It’s not necessarily people talking on their phone. You have to consider that some folks will talk significantly louder than normal as a reaction to the fact that they can’t hear the person they’re talking to as well due to background noise. Flight attendants then have to settle the dispute when someone is talking too loudly in the eyes of the person next to them.

      2. Maybe, but unless they’re on the internet how do they know they are having a bona fide emergency? How does a FA determine what’s an emergency and what’s not? I would argue FAs are certainly not devoid of wild interpretation as it stands today.

      3. This strikes me as the only reasonable solution, and yet is counter to one of the airlines’ key benefits, extra legroom seats. The folks who travel the most are more likely to be business travelers, thus also more likely to need to take a call for a business matter. Interesting quandary, comfort or phone calls? Secondly, as a business traveler, can I really have an effective work call when the guy next to me is talking as well?

      Certainly, one airline could decide to blaze a path in the opposite direction of others. We’ll have to see.

  3. I despise the idea of airlines allowing the use of phones aboard. However, I hold a much higher level of disdain for the US government banning any speech unless absolutely necessary.

    If allowing it would break the ground network or cause issues with the plane, than such a restriction is called for. But if it’s now been found that they can be used safely, I believe that the FCC has an obligation to remove this restriction on communication as soon as possible. Whether airlines choose to allow it (and I would hope not) is a completely separate issue, as that’s not a government restriction.

    1. Kevin, you may have some issues getting the taser onboard. But, if you do I’m 100% in support of you using it.

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