Sep. 19, 2012 at 10:07 AM ET
If the prospect of your fellow passengers using their cellphones in flight bothers you, you may want to consider buying those noise-canceling headphones.
You won’t need them any time soon — at least not here in the U.S. — but if recent developments are any indication, annoying ringtones and one-sided conversations will likely be a part of your flying future.
“Given the pace of change in technology, it would be naïve to suggest it wouldn’t happen,” said Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. “I’m sure we’ll see it someday.”
That “someday” seemed to get pushed back last month after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it was convening a working group to study the use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) in flight. The group, said the FAA in a statement, will not consider in-flight use of cellphones for voice communications.
Maybe not, but other groups at FAA already are. It didn’t get much press, but a week after the agency announced its PED working group, the Federal Register released a technical report titled “Study on the Use of Cell Phones on Passenger Aircraft,” which examined other countries’ experiences with in-flight calling.
The report, which was mandated by the FAA Reauthorization Bill passed last February, looked at the current state of in-flight calling in 11 countries. Among those that allowed it, often via limited pilot projects, none reported safety issues that could be attributed definitively to phone use.
Most also reported “low” or “limited” uptake among passengers. Among those that provided specific data, the numbers ranged from 2 percent in France to 10 percent in Jordan. The latter was the only one that reported any volume-related complaints from fellow passengers.
For travelers in the U.S., the issue remains moot as the FCC, not the FAA, is responsible for regulating cellphone use (regardless of their altitude) and has shown no signs of revising its policy of restricting in-flight calling. With cellphones already used in-flight in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, it seems only a matter of time before it's allowed in the U.S.
In fact, it’s getting closer all the time. This spring, Virgin Atlantic began allowing in-flight calling on flights between London and several U.S. cities, although the service is currently disabled when the aircraft comes within 250 miles of U.S. airspace.
“There has been no negative customer feedback,” Virgin Atlantic spokesman Joshua Crouthamel told NBC News. “In fact, the feedback we’ve received via social media has been great.”
Part of the reason may be that the service is limited to seven passengers at a time, although it also appears that in-flight phone use is subject to the same demographic influences found on the ground. Increasingly, people don’t use their phones to make calls; they use them to send texts.
“Like most people, when our passengers have a quick and important piece of information to communicate, they like the ability to text in order to share that info,” said Crouthamel. The FAA report on in-flight phone usage in foreign countries described a similar trend: In New Zealand, authorities reported that 10 texts were sent for every minute of voice communication.
Could texting be the key that unlocks in-flight phone use in the U.S.? On the technology front, the answer is still “no” as texting, like calling, requires transmitting a signal, which is prohibited by FCC regulations. It could, however, provide a glimmer of hope for those who fear their future flights may devolve into a steady stream of Nicki Minaj ringtones, one-sided arguments and TMI chat-fests.
“Texting could certainly help with the annoyance factor,” said Voss. “It’s a lot less distracting to have someone texting than yelling into their phone.”
In the meantime, you can add your own thoughts on the subject as FAA is accepting comments on its recent study through Nov. 5.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.
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