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Smartphones On A Plane: DoT Weighs In

FCC plans to review ban on airline voice calls, but Department of Transportation may enact its own ban, "for the sake of fliers' sanity."

Airlines may now allow you to use your mobile device during takeoff and landing, but you shouldn't be making voice calls from the air -- at least, not yet. The Federal Communications Commission has decided to officially review its ban of the practice, but the US Department of Transportation might put its own ban in place.

The FCC voted 3-2 Thursday to push forward its proposal to overturn the ban on making cellular voice calls from planes. The ban was put into place in 1991 due to fears that the phones would wreak havoc on ground-based wireless networks. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said that the agency is responsible for the technical and safety implications, but not necessarily the societal impact lifting the ban might have.

"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function," said Wheeler.

[For another perspective, see Make The Skies Friendlier For Mobile Devices.]

Wheeler's opinion is shared by others in the government. Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said airlines, flight attendants, the flying public, and politicians, "are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight -- and I am concerned about this possibility as well." Foxx said the DoT may propose a ban on making phone calls on planes for the sake of fliers' sanity.

The flight attendant union was among the first to respond when the FCC initially said it would revisit its rules. It staunchly opposes the idea: "Passengers overwhelmingly reject cell phone use in the aircraft cabin. Flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment. Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe." The FCC has been inundated with pleas to leave the ban in place.

Wheeler and Foxx may be on the same page, but FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted in favor of revisiting the ban, has other concerns. "If we move beyond what we do here today and actually update our rules to allow voice calls on planes, we could see a future where our quiet time is monetized and seating in the silent section comes at a premium," said Rosenworcel. In other words, she's worried airlines might charge more for those passengers seeking quiet on the flight.

There are a lot of ifs and moving parts involved in making this all work. Nothing is going to be finalized any time soon.

First, the FCC actually has to lift the ban. The earliest it might do this is the first quarter of 2014. If the ban is lifted, it will be up to each individual airline to decide whether to offer the service. Airlines that choose to offer cellular voice calls will need to invest heavily in the technology to make it happen. Airplanes will need to be outfitted with their own cell towers and other telecommunications gear, which will require significant capital investment.

If you think calling from airplanes will be included in your monthly service plan, you're sadly mistaken -- airlines won't give the service away for free. High costs could be just enough of a deterrent to prevent the type of behavior everyone is loath to experience: gabby passengers who don't know when to be quiet.

The Department of Transportation may still act and save us all.

Eric Zeman is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies.

Consumerization 1.0 was "we don't need IT." Today we need IT to bridge the gap between consumer and business tech. Also in the Consumerization 2.0 issue of InformationWeek: Stop worrying about the role of the CIO. (Free registration required.)

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Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Author
12/16/2013 | 10:15:00 AM
Re: Not interested
I'm with you, SaneIT. I would defnitely appreciate more time to check email, and text family members during takeoff and landing. But I can't imagine a cabin filled with passnengers, all talking on the phone during a lengthy flight. In my hometown, there is a commuter bus service to Boston that doesn't allow phone calls during the one-hour trip to Boston. I think that is a sensible policy for the airlines to adopt as well. 
User Rank: Ninja
12/16/2013 | 8:27:22 AM
Re: Not interested
I can say that I would love to be able to use the data connection or SMS when in the air but I would never make a phone call on a plane.  Having a data connection would let me do a little more work than I already do when flying and would keep me from sitting down for a half hour when the plane lands to see what came in while I was in the air. I really don't want to be on a plane that takes an extra 15 minutes to taxi away from the gate while flight attendants try to get the attention of all the people on cell phones so I don't see a need to allow them on take off or landing and I hope that rule never changes.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/16/2013 | 4:59:48 AM
Re: Not interested
Frankly i dont see any point in making smartphones available during takeoff and landing, i am still struglling to find the difference.
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman,
User Rank: Strategist
12/15/2013 | 8:06:05 PM
Not interested
I am definitely not interested in listening to people gab on their phones whilst on a plane. I very rarely work when on planes, and instead try to relax. It's hard to relax when forced to listen to someone else's conversation.

This isn't limited to phones, though. Sometimes you get a big group of people traveling together who yap the entire flight. Or, like what happened to me on a recent 9-hr flight from Berlin to Newark, a baby that screams in your ear and smacks you in the arm the entire time. There are so many things already wrong with air travel, this would be just one more thing. 

We've survived, what, almost 100 years of commercial air travel without the need to make phone calls when in the air. I hope the DoT deigns to keep it that way. 
User Rank: Ninja
12/14/2013 | 10:37:01 PM
Re: Smartphones are not the problem
It makes sense. The FCC's mandate is communications, and with the state of the art as it is now, cellphones no longer have to be a hazard. It is a matter of governance, convenience and passenger comfort and safety, which is where DOT comes in. Cellphones make traveling on busses and subways miserable enough, even when the duration of the trip is short and one does, after alll, have the option of getting up and moving away. This isn't practical on an airplane, so I, for one, hope the ban stays in effect, no matter who mandates it.
User Rank: Ninja
12/14/2013 | 6:13:11 PM
Pay for it
I don't see any problem with it if the FCC doesn't. If people want it they will have to pay for it. You still won't have mass usage because of the rates you will pay to use it.
User Rank: Ninja
12/14/2013 | 12:34:47 PM
Re: Smartphones are not the problem
Shh... quiet with that standing up thing, don't give them any ideas!
Tom Mariner
Tom Mariner,
User Rank: Strategist
12/14/2013 | 10:40:55 AM
Smartphones are not the problem
I probably would not like my seatmate yelling into a flat rectangle at 38,000 feet, but getting from here to there has lots more problems.

First, there is the shrinking number of airline companies with the imperative to never let a seat go unoccupied, or a knee not touching the seatback in front. The sport of travelling in style in the sky now has accomodations worse than a Greyhound bus filled with a college team that has just won a championship.

My favorite is "charging for checking bags". This new tradition has encouraged the stowage of 50 pound "carry on's" over my head, where my unwrinkled suit jacket or coat should go -- instead of in special places under the plane designed for the purpose. Loading and unloading takes insanely longer and I have to wait for a 98 pound grandmother to coax a bag that weighs almost as much as she does into or out of four feet above her head. Charge for carry-ons, not checked bags you ninny's!

TSA -- yes, an essential part of preventing another 9/11, but $8 billion a year and 55,000 employees? For the traveller who years ago could skid to a stop outside a terminal 15 minutes before flight time and make it to their seats, the ritualistic reaction to every rumor from the tiny band that wants us all dead is ingrained in all of us in "get to the airport three hours ahead' chunks. We are taking off shoes, not bringing anything sharp or anything liquid on board because of rumors or incidents. Yeah, its way better than the Ghanan refugee pretending to dispense security, but 55,000 federal employees makes me safer?

Fortunately, for the airlines, the loss of revenue for the stupid tethered phones in the seat back in front of you will be offset by wifi fees, so they don't have to take the next innovation step in airline profitability and have us stand holding on to straps as in the subway.
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