Transport Airlines

Unlike foreign peers, U.S. carriers aren’t rushing to add cellphones to flights any time soon

Oct 04, 2012 6:55 am

Skift Take

If it went right, there would be wide-spread courtesy for passengers and a nice source of ancillary fees for airlines. But will U.S. passengers be able to behave?

— Jason Clampet

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In the skies over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, airline passengers can chat and text on cellphones without getting an angry look from a flight attendant.

Thai Airways, with regular flights from Los Angeles to Bangkok, recently announced plans to offer onboard cellphone service, joining about 20 other foreign-based carriers that already offer it.

But U.S. carriers are not rushing to jump on the bandwagon, even though aviation experts say new satellite-based technology makes airborne cellphone calls safe.

“It’s not a priority of ours right now,” said Mary Frances Fagan, a spokeswoman for American Airlines.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission prohibit cellphone calls on planes over U.S. airspace, but federal officials say they would listen to requests by airlines to lift the restrictions.

But don’t expect airline officials in the U.S. to press for such changes. They cite the extra cost and hassle to test, install and operate cellphone technology as one reason to keep cellphones off domestic flights.

And airlines point out that passengers are not clamoring for the service, according to several surveys that say most air travelers expect that in-flight cellular service will lead to loud phone conversations and onboard fury.

“Cellphone offerings and voice-over data is not something that our members are seeing strong demand for from their passengers,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s airline industry.

Even flight attendants have voiced opposition, saying cellphone calls would only make their jobs more difficult.

But on foreign airlines, reports of cellphone calls causing disputes or disturbances have been rare, primarily because calls are costly — starting at about $1.20 per minute — and noisy aircraft cabins deter long conversations, according to foreign carriers and their passengers.

On a Virgin Atlantic flight this summer from London to Miami, record producer Corey Johnson’s short cellphone call was met with curiosity, not anger, from fellow passengers.

“For a business owner like myself, it’s an option that’s great to have,” he said, “if, like myself, you never shut off.”

Brett King, an author and speaker on the banking industry who has flown on Emirates Airline and Qatar Airways, said calls cause no friction because passengers are instructed to keep their phones on silent mode to stifle the ring and calls are not allowed in a “quiet zone” of the plane where passengers might be sleeping.

The fear that cellphones on planes will lead to loud conversations and conflicts, King said, are unfounded.

Passengers on Emirates Airline flights have used their cellphones more than 10 million times to send and receive text messages and emails and an additional 625,000 times for voice conversations since the airline began offering the service in 2008, according to the airline. But the airline says it has received only two passenger complaints about loud calls.

“The majority of people are considerate about using cellphones,” said Patrick Brannelly, a spokesman for Emirates, adding that most passengers use their cellphones to send text messages. “It’s a self-managing environment in many ways.”

Helping to keep the peace, onboard cell technology typically limits the number of phone calls that can be made simultaneously.

“We found that people are courteous and most calls are shorter than two minutes,” said Ian Dawkins, chief executive of OnAir of Geneva. It is one of two major technology companies that has installed cellphone service on 20 foreign airlines.

But in the U.S., passengers and airline officials predict feuds and clashes among fliers if cellphone service is activated on planes.

“If you let people use phones on planes, I’m afraid they will abuse it,” said Meredith Wilson, a Seattle resident who recently flew into Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport. “It could cause a lot of problems.”

Craig Patton, a Denver resident who recently flew to Southern California, said he doesn’t mind the ban on cellphone calls on planes.

“I’m not addicted to my cellphone,” he said. “I can go two or three hours without texting or talking on the phone. I’m old school.”

Without demand from passengers, U.S. airline representatives say they won’t press federal officials to allow cellphone calls on domestic flights.

“Right now our focus is on what customers say they want, and that is in-flight Wi-Fi,” said Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, the nation’s most popular domestic carrier.

In the U.S., the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission have prohibited in-flight cellular calls because they say strong signals from phones may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system and communication equipment on the ground.

But new onboard cellphone technology is designed to eliminate such problems.

OnAir and AeroMobile Communications Ltd. of London — the two leading onboard cellphone technology firms — install in commercial planes small mobile base stations, known as pico cells, which connect cellular calls via satellite to networks on the ground.

When a passenger turns on a cellphone, the phone emits a signal that gets progressively stronger as it searches for a cell network. Because the pico cells are in the plane’s ceiling, the cellphone signal is too faint to interfere with onboard navigation systems or communication equipment, officials from both companies say.

“There is no issue at all with the operation of this technology,” said Dawkins, the CEO of OnAir.

The technology has been approved for use over the air space of dozens of countries around the world, said Todd Hill, director of technical operations for AeroMobile.

Dave Carson, an electrical engineer at Boeing Co. and co-chairman of a panel that drafted a process to modify the FAA ban on electronic devices on commercial flights, agreed. “That is all doable,” Carson said. “U.S. carriers can do that.”

(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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