“Hello? I can’t hear you. You’re breaking up. I’m over the Rockies. I’M OVER THE ROCKIES!’’
Involuntarily overhearing lovers’ quarrels, minutes of sales meetings or plans for family vacations could be as close as the guy in front of you with his seat pushed back, if increasingly persistent proposals to allow the use of personal cell phones in-flight become reality.
The safety of in-flight mobile phones has been debated in tech circles for years, with no clear consensus. But the European Union’s equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration—the European Aviation Safety Agency—recently ruled there were no technical reasons why in-flight voice communication wouldn’t be safe and efficient.
Since the first of the year, technologically savvy Air France has been testing in-flight text messaging and e-mail service on Airbus A318s flying short-haul routes in EU airspace. Over the next three months, Air France plans to expand its trial to include voice communications. Qantas, Emirates, Ryanair and the UK's bmi are also considering trial runs of mobile phones in the sky.
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Authority has ruled out personal cell phones in-flight since 1991, saying their signals may interfere with an airliner’s avionics and compromise safety, or scramble wireless networks on the ground. The Federal Communications Commission agreed. Seatback phone services have long been available but never took off, in part because consumers deemed them too expensive.
But the FCC shook things up by announcing in December 2004 that it might lift the ban on personal mobile phones. The commission solicited public comment from travelers and reviewed the scientific literature. Then, in April 2007, the FCC decided the ban would stay, at least for now.
So international carriers have been driving the agenda. Although cabin crews dread eruptions of air rage between, say, a passenger who wants to sleep or read and one who can’t sleep and wants to talk, the ubiquity of cell phones in modern life and the fact that charging fliers to use them could generate revenue is tempting U.S. airlines to give it a try.
Recently JetBlue Airways began trialing in-flight instant messaging and e-mail for passengers with smart phones or laptops, and Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Virgin America plan to follow suit soon.
But right now, proposals to let passengers on U.S. flights make cell phone calls are just that—proposals. There’s still time to make your voice heard if you feel passionately about the issue one way or another. But the clock is running.
With the first phase of the U.S.-EU open skies agreement set to start at the end of this month, European carriers that allow personal cell phones en route might gain a competitive edge, at least on their European routes, over U.S. rivals who don’t follow suit. Major American carriers hope to ramp up their service over the Atlantic and between European cities.
U.S. air travelers can sound off by contacting the FCC’s Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC, or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or by writing: Federal Communications Commission, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, Consumer Inquiry and Complaints Division, 455 Twelfth St., SW, Washington, D.C. 20554.