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How Much Closer Are Passengers to Making In-Flight Calls?

Jun 17, 2014 8:00 am

Skift Take

In-flight calls are inevitable, but the rules surrounding their use and the etiquette that will arise is yet to be seen.

— Marisa Garcia

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Passenger attempting to get in one last text before the flight takes off. Skift


As the FCC’s consultation period on the extension of access to mobile wireless devices onboard aircraft comes to an end, Airbus and SITA joint venture OnAir repeated its recommendation to the FCC and the FAA to define regulations in a manner which will allow airlines to decide whether or not to allow passengers to make calls in-flight.

It has also asked the U.S. government not to pass any legislation which would ban the use of cell phones in-flight.

OnAir argues that in-flight connectivity is a growing market in the U.S. and globally. Citing Skift’s recent survey which shows that only 18% of air passengers in the U.S. have used in-flight connectivity, OnAir points out the significant potential for growth. They also point out the statistics from Skift’s survey which show that 18-24 year olds are most likely to use in-flight connectivity to communicate with their friends, family and colleagues on the ground.

“The U.S. authorities have three choices,” said Ian Dawkins, CEO of OnAir. “You can give the airlines the right tools to allow them to decide what services to offer passengers. You can allow airlines from the rest of the world to offer cell phone services when they are in your airspace. The third option is to try to stop progress with a ban.”

The U.S. Flying Public Doesn’t Want In-flight Calls

There have been numerous articles written on this decision both for and against allowing in-flight mobile phone use as part of connectivity services, but OnAir believes that regulations forbidding use outright would not be in the long-term best interest of airlines or the travelling public.

The prevailing opinion of U.S. passengers leans towards banning calls onboard, based on fears that this would lead to a cacophony of callers making what is already a crowded and unpleasant flying experience worse. OnAir disagrees.

“Concerns about people using cell phones on planes are misplaced. Mobile OnAir started flying in 2007. Since then, across the world on millions of flights, there hasn’t been a single complaint about disruption caused by people using their cell phones, nor has there been any interference with ground networks or aeronautical systems. And that applies to flights across the world, with people of all nationalities, including Americans.”

OnAir points out that it provides in-flight cell phone and Wi-Fi services to 21 airlines around the world, including Aeroflot, British Airways, Emirates, Philippine Airlines, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. “Mobile OnAir, the in-flight cell phone service,” OnAir states, “has flown on millions of flights across the world since 2007, with the full backing of over 100 national authorities. Airlines have the choice of turning off the voice element, leaving mobile data only. They can choose to disable the voice service permanently, or during the plane’s quiet times.”

At the heart of OnAir’s argument is the concern that by banning the mobile telephony application now, implementation in the short-term future, when there may be a shift in public opinion and a greater demand for the service, would be unnecessarily complicated by the need to draft up new regulation and legislation to cancel any regulation or legislation put on the books. This may mean an even longer lag-time for aviation communications services in the U.S. to catch up with the rest of the world. As, OnAir points out, the U.S. is already seven years behind.

Where the Airlines Stand on In-Flight Calls

U.S. Airlines have been careful to ensure they side with public opinion on this matter. We reached out to Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, and Virgin America for clarification on whether they would support a regulatory ban and legislation against telephony services onboard. Only Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest replied in time for this report. Each airline made it clear that they are aware of prevailing customer preferences and do not intend to have telephone calls in-flight for the time being, regardless of what happens with the FCC decision and any eventual legislation.

American Airlines indicated: “Currently, American’s in-flight Wi-Fi blocks voice over IP calls. We understand that this is an important issue to many of our customers, and we will certainly keep the wishes of our customers in mind should the rules governing cell phone use shift to individual airlines.”

JetBlue told Skift: “The comfort and safety of all of our customers is our first priority. We’ve heard from many customers and the majority have shared that they do not want voice calls allowed onboard. We have no plans on installing the cellular transponders that would allow cellular calls. Overall, we will prioritize making the cabin comfortable and welcoming for all – including those who like peace and quiet.”

And Southwest had this to say: “The ability to use electronic items which access cellular data networks remains off the table, and our Customers have told us that in-flight voice communication would be disruptive. We continue to monitor our Customers’ feedback on this topic and would heavily consider that should the FCC make any rule changes.”

None would say they expressly support the ban, but emphasized that customer preferences must come first. A spokesperson at Alaska Airlines was more candid about Alaska’s position on this issue.

“I can’t comment on specific legislation,” the spokesperson told Skift, “but I can tell you that we have always had clear feedback from our customers that they do not want voice calls in-flight. We continually communicate with our customers, however, and will be assessing whether their preferences have changed.” When asked whether this meant that Alaska supported a regulatory or legislated ban, the spokesperson added: “At the end of the day, our customers are generally not in favor of allowing voice calls on our flights, so we have no intention of allowing voice calls. That said, the marketplace, not the government, should make that determination. We want to be able to provide our customers with a meaningful choice in the future.”

Will Consumers Change Their Minds?

OnAir believes that public opinion in the U.S. will shift away from the objections to in-flight calls, so ardently expressed at present, and that keeping options open will ultimately benefit both airlines and consumers.

“People embarking on their careers have grown up being able to stay in touch wherever, whenever and however they want,” says Dawkins. “Tomorrow’s business people don’t want to be out of touch just because they are flying, particularly when there is no reason for imposing a ban.”

OnAir also points out that fully connected flights have not proven as problematic Internationally as the U.S. flying public might believe. Part of the limitations on the calls are based on general trends for today’s text-based communication, but there is also a pricing limitation which limits excessive use.

In their statement, OnAir says:

“Passengers typically use Mobile OnAir for data – largely email – to update Facebook and Twitter, and for text messaging. Voice calls, which cost around $3-$4 per minute, account for slightly over 10% of total in-flight usage and the average call length is under two minutes. Mobile OnAir is currently on around 20,000 flights a month and nearly 700,000 passengers connect to OnAir each month.”

Calls Previously Permitted In-Flight

These low telephony usage figures coincide with the previous experience of both AT&T’s Air One service and Verizon’s Airfone service which consisted of telephones embedded into galley walls and seat-backs, but had such low usage that neither company felt the businesses were viable and shut down operations in 2002 and 2006 respectively.

Gogo, who owns Aircell (which provides telephony services to private and business jets) purchased the remains of Verizon’s Airfone services in 2013. Gogo’s Text and Talk service, offered in the U.S. is only “Text” for now; though it has the full capabilities which would allow passengers to make calls inflght using Gogo’s Wi-Fi connection — should airlines and passengers want that service activated.

Steve Nolan, Director of Communications and PR at Gogo, told Skift: “We agree with our airline partners which have listened to consumers — who don’t want airlines to do it.” He explains that airlines have done extensive consumer research and have determined that their customers would prefer that no calls are made in-flight. However, Nolan points out that their systems can provide these services and that Aircell’s systems already do so for business jet customers who do want to remain connected at all times, even by telephone.

Nolan also tells us that the systems in place for connectivity currently have the ability for all services, including telephony to be switched on, but because consumers do not want the service and airlines therefore do not want to offer it, this particular feature is not turned on in commercial flights. “There doesn’t need to be legislation to ban it,” he tells us, “if customers don’t want it then we [Gogo and Gogo’s airline customers] won’t do it.” The technology is there, Nolan says, but it doesn’t have to be used.

Leaving Options Open

OnAir states that it is not alone in asking that U.S. airlines get to choose. The Telecommunications Industry Association, the Information Technology and Industry Council and the Consumer Electronics Association have all called for authorities to decide in favor of the best interest of the airlines, the flying public, and even the regulators themselves — who might one day have to undo any regulations or legislation put on the books today.

We reached out to the FAA for comment, but did not receive a reply. We also tried to reach the FCC but were unsuccessful.

Marisa Garcia has worked in aviation since 1994, spending 16 years on the design and manufacturing of cabin interiors and cabin safety equipment. She shares insights gained from this experience on Flight Chic and Tweets as @designerjet.

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