Making voice calls via cell phone aboard a plane doesn't hold much interest for U.S. airline passengers or airlines, but there isn't a technological reason to ban them, according to federal authorities.
The debate over making voice calls at 35,000 feet has become like so many debates with technology: Sure, we can do it, but do we want to?
In essence, whether voice calls are banned on planes comes down to a behavioral discussion and not one about technology.
"This is now a political and social question and not one of technology," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "I personally would not want people talking loudly and incessantly during a six-plus hour trip, and I'm betting most airlines will ban in-flight calls in the U.S. because they are worried it will anger their passengers."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx this week said that voice call concerns have been aired by airlines, travelers, flight attendants and even members of Congress. "I am concerned ... as well," he said in a statement. The Department of Transportation oversees the U.S. aviation industry.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3 to 2 to start a long public comment period to consider removing a 22-year-old FCC prohibition on phone calls during flights over concerns they would interfere with cellular networks on the ground.
FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler voted in the majority, saying there is new on-board technology that prevents ground interference and renders the FCC restriction unnecessary. The restriction would remain in place if any airplane didn't have the new equipment to manage cellular signals installed on its planes.
Wheeler conceded in a statement, "I don't want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else." But he added that removing the prohibition would be a de-regulatory move that "gets the government out from between airlines and their passengers...the free market works best to determine the appropriate outcome."
Wheeler said the DOT would be the body to address "behavioral issues" related to phone calls on planes, not the FCC.
However, at the FCC hearing when the vote was taken, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted with the majority to let the public comment period start, but said she doesn't ultimately support removing the FCC prohibition on calls, and asserted that the FCC's role goes beyond acting only as technicians. She envisioned a future time when planes will have "quiet" sections that cost more than areas of the plane where calls are allowed, and said the FCC would be adding to that cost burden.
A poll released this week by the Associated Press and GfK found that 48% of Americans oppose allowing cell phones for voice calls during flights, while 19% support it. Thirty percent were undecided.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Friday that 60% of Southwest's passengers in surveys oppose voice calls during flights. "The vast majority of our customers don't want cell phone calls in flight," he said during an interview on CBS This Morning. "If our customers don't want it, our employees won't want it either. It's an inconvenience to be in such close quarters and overhearing a loud conversation ... It's not a significant safety question at all."
Delta Air Lines has cited overwhelming customer opposition to voice calls on planes and has a ban against such calls. Other airlines have said they are studying the issue.
U.S. House and Senate lawmakers have introduced legislation to ban passengers from talking on cell phones during flights. One measure to limit device use, introduced by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), is called the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act.
There is also support for the FCC's changing the regulation, including from the Telecommunications Industry Association, which notes that in countries allowing phone use, the calls usually last less than two minutes with only a few people making them at once. Some of the voice calls are made by passengers checking voicemail, without the passenger doing any talking.
Foreign airlines that allow phone calls are poised to extend that permission in the U.S. if the FCC lifts its ban, but analysts believe it's pretty clear that such competitive pressure won't induce U.S. airlines to go along.
British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air France, KLM, Emirates, Aeroflot and Virgin Atlantic allow voice calling, but Lufthansa and Aer Lingus do not.
The in-flight voice services of those airlines use small cellular base stations onboard planes called picocells, which communicate with the main cell network via satellite to reduce interference. That's the category of technology that Wheeler described as making it possible to lift the FCC ban.
In October, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted a longtime ban on using personal devices at takeoff and landing below 10,000 feet, provided the devices remain in airplane mode, which means they aren't connected via Wi-Fi, a wireless technology now widely available on U.S. airlines. The FAA's action means a device could stay on during an entire flight without interfering with a plane's electronics and communications as once feared. Several airlines immediately adopted the policy change.
Conceivably, in-air Wi-Fi could be used as a means to send Internet Protocol voice calls, or even video calls or a service like Skype, but that ability is usually not allowed over Wi-Fi, and airlines would probably ban that approach if they also decide to ban cellular calls.
Wheeler described how an onboard access system would give an airline total control over what type of mobile services to permit, even giving passengers the ability to send texts and emails, surf the Web and make phone calls without the need to sign up for Wi-Fi. That's because the signal would be managed over the cellular network.
Of course, an airline could also use onboard access systems to shut down voice only, while allowing other services.
Having Wi-Fi for browsing and email, without voice calling distractions, suits some frequent fliers just fine, including Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.
"As much as I love having Wi-Fi on planes so I can get some work done, I love even more that I do not get phone calls, so that I can get work done!" she said.
This article, Voice calls from planes: A social debate, not a technology dilemma, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.