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.