The freight train which is in flight cell phone use

You cannot stop progress. Doesn’t mean you have to like it, but good luck stopping it. Remember that as we delve in to the hot topic of the day: The FCC is (finally) going to revisit the issue of in-flight cell phone use on airplanes within the United States.

Please Turn Off Electronic Devices
In flight cell phone use is coming. Get ready.

The FCC’s responsibility is to manage the radio spectrum to ensure that the systems are safe, that they don’t interfere with each other. It is pretty clear at this point that the interference issues simply do not exist. Newer avionics systems on aircraft and better engineering on the phones means the safety issues are easily met. They are supposed to help increase the connectivity available to everyone, not limit it. In many ways it is surprising they’ve taken this long to act.

So once that issue is addressed, what next?

This is going to happen. The rule will change. It might not happen at this particular meeting in mid-December but the rule will change eventually. And so airlines will be permitted to add pico-cells, small cell phone transponders, on to their planes and handle the voice and data traffic from phones. But will they?

Ultimately the decision on whether to add the hardware on board will become an economic one. The kit costs money to buy, money to install, money to operate and money to fly the extra weight around all day every day. And if no one is paying to use it then that’s going to be a tough argument to make to the airlines. Then again, most airlines are also installing in-flight wifi today even though it doesn’t actually appear to be profitable as a standalone product.

Plus there is the part where people apparently don’t want the systems available. At least that’s what they say when polled. Pundits have been all over the news, blogs, TV and anywhere else they can show up reminding us all that no one wants to sit next to others talking on the plane. And yet there is the actual behavior as well. Lots of people say they don’t want something and then end up doing it anyways. Maybe in-flight cell phone use will be different, but I’m betting against that. Human nature is funny that way.

From time to time I try to remind myself that many airlines already offer the service today, just none in the USA. And, best as I can tell, there haven’t been brawls on board. Maybe that’s because all those passengers are better/nicer/more civil than people in the USA. Or maybe the issue isn’t really all that significant. I’ve been that guy who used the old AirFone system to call in for a conference call. Sure, I didn’t talk much, but no one tried to kill me.

Quite frankly, it may be a moot point in the very near future anyways. As voice calls are becoming data traffic on the network rather than a a separate service the ability to regulate them separately will start to vanish. The connectivity providers may be trying to block voice calls on their data networks in-flight today but they aren’t there yet. I’ve sat across the aisle from the guy having a Facetime conversation with someone on the ground. The main annoyance was that it slowed down my connectivity. Gogo has their new “text and talk” feature which makes the ground-based services operate virtually seamlessly in the sky. And consumers are likely to stay ahead of the operators on this front, just like they have in the past. Airlines may be saying today that they’re in no rush to implement the service but it remains unclear just how long that will last.

You can try to stop a freight train rolling down the tracks but it is a futile effort. Tilting at windmills and all.

Oh, and if anyone is surprised by the timing of the FCC’s move you shouldn’t be. The new Chairman of the group – sworn in earlier this month – used to work as a lobbyist for the cable and wireless communications industries. His background is in trying to help those groups make more money. Certainly his efforts to expand the places they can sell their services, including on airplanes, shouldn’t be too shocking a development.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. A small percentage of customers is going to pick flights based on whether they can use their phones or not. I’m guessing this happens with wifi as well, and is probably one of the many reasons United’s performance has been so lackluster lately. So I’m guessing the carriers will eventually have little option but to implement it once it’s allowed.

    1. Do you really think it has an impact on United so far? I don’t. No airline or connectivity provider has been able to show stats demonstrating that revenue or yields are impacted by offering wifi or not.


      That may change eventually (and I think it probably will at some point if there are still laggards out there) but I do not think it matter yet. Sure, maybe to an individual customer, but not enough overall to affect the broader numbers.

  2. No one likes the guy talking on their cell phone until they have to be the guy doing it. There seems to be the tacit assumption that everyone else’s cell phone use is superfluous whereas one’s own use is always an extenuating circumstance, so it’s no surprise that when asked about someone else’s cell phone use, responses are generally negative.

    That aside, indeed, with the European Commission approving in-flight mobile network usage, it’s getting increasingly difficult for the FCC to justify its current stance on anything but historical grounds.

  3. I heard on the radio today that Delta said they will not allow cell phone calls during flights; too much noise and chaos.

    1. Most airlines who have commented have indicated that they are unlikely to permit voice calls at this time should it be approved. And that’s fine. It should be their choice.

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