The FCC has proven that in-flight mobile phone calls are safe so let's allow passengers to use their mobile phones as they and the airlines see fit.

Roslyn Layton, Contributor

December 12, 2013

5 Min Read

More than 20 million people take a cruise annually. Many bring mobile phones to talk, text, email, and browse the web. The technology that enables mobile connectivity, whether in the skies or on the high seas, is essentially the same. An onboard mobile network links to the terrestrial mobile network via satellite, and customers access mobile services with a roaming plan from their mobile provider.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would like consumers to enjoy the same convenience in the air as they do on the water.

Not to be confused with the recent Federal Aviation Administration ruling deciding that portable electronic devices no longer have to be powered down during landing and takeoff and can be used in all phases of flight (except to make calls), the FCC's proposal on the docket for Thursday concerns mobile operations above 10,000 feet and whether they impact terrestrial networks.

As FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has stated, there is no technical issue that interferes with the safety of fliers, and as he said today, "When the rationale for a rule doesn't exist, the rule shouldn't exist."

[Secure the data, not the mobile device. Read more at Keep Data Off Mobile Devices & Away From Adversaries.]

The FCC has suggested that, once technical and safety requirements are met, airlines (in consultation with passengers) are better equipped to make decisions on how, where, and when to use mobile services, including for making calls. A new rule would allow airlines to make mobile services available should their customers desire it. The use of phones during takeoff and landing would still be prohibited. It's worth noting that a final decision on an official FCC ruling won't come until next year.

The no in-flight mobile rule has been in effect for more than two decades. It's an antique in the age of smartphones. Now with definitive information that there are no safety concerns, along with improved technology that makes in-flight mobile phone service feasible, the FCC is moving toward retiring an obsolete statute. When government agencies and politicians are loath to retire old rules, this effort to remove rules that are no longer relevant is a testament to the FCC's integrity.

The agency has made it clear that it will determine only the technical, not behavioral, issues of in-flight mobile operations. Many passengers welcome the opportunity to send texts and browse the web while in flight, but some policy makers worry that rude passengers will speak too loudly or frequently. To calm some of these fears, let's consider the experience of foreign countries and airlines that already offer in-flight voice calls.

An FAA questionnaire of non-US aviation authorities found not only no documented occurrences of mobile phones affecting flight safety, but also no negative comments about in-flight mobile service, incidents of "air rage", or flight attendant interference. If anything, complaints were about a mobile phone not working or a call being interrupted in flight.

The 11-country survey, including Brazil, UK, Australia and France, found that fewer than 2% of customers used voice services in flight, phone calls were less than two minutes long, and texting exceeded voice by a factor of 10. The fact that in-flight roaming technology is expensive curbs the frequency and duration of passenger phone calls.

Should the ban be lifted, there would be many possibilities for US airlines. The status quo would still be in effect unless airlines took action to change it. The upside for airlines is that the decision of whether to offer mobile service would be based upon what consumers want, not what a regulator decides. Just as cruise ships compete with a variety of plans and services, including mobile connectivity, airlines should have those options. Presently, foreign airlines have a head start on offering these benefits to customers.

Airlines are no stranger to managing disparate customer needs. Consider the growing industry of discount air travel with a la carte pricing. If an airline can deploy a variety of pricing options to satisfy a range of customers, then it can balance the needs of callers and noncallers. This ruling would give consumers another competitive dimension when evaluating a mobile provider. It would also be a valuable addition for frequent business flyers.

Not only do virtually all Americans have mobile phones, but more than half have smartphones. Society is integrating with mobile technology, and a big part of this integration is the debate over mobile phone etiquette. There are rules about the use of mobile phones in restaurants, trains, fitness centers, and other locations. Some oppose lifting the in-flight ban because the airplane seems like the last refuge from work and the stresses of life. If it is the case that life is out of balance, then something needs to be done, but it's not the role of the FCC to be arbiter of work-life balance.

With mobile technology, we can communicate anytime and everywhere on the Earth, whether on cruise ships, cars, trains, subways, or buses. To say that mobile phones can't be used fully on planes is simply inconsistent, and the time has come to overturn this antiquated rule.

Roslyn Layton is a PhD fellow in Internet economics at the Center for Communication, Media, and Information Technologies at Aalborg University in Denmark and vice president of Strand Consult, a mobile industry consultancy.

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About the Author(s)

Roslyn Layton


Roslyn Layton is a Ph.D. Fellow in Internet economics at the Center for Communication, Media and Information Studies at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, Denmark and an employee of Strand Consult, an independent consultancy working with the mobile industry. Roslyn previously worked in the software industry in the US, India and Europe.

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