Transport Airlines

Why the In-Flight Call Ban on U.S. Airlines Is Such a Big Deal

Aug 05, 2014 6:00 am

Skift Take

The debate in a nutshell: It’s not about inflight calls alone.  It’s about equipment, and it’s about who gets to decide.    

— Marisa Garcia

Free Report: The State of Student Travel

Matt socum  / AP Photo/Matt Sl

This file file photo shows a plane passenger checking her cell phone before a flight in Boston. Matt socum / AP Photo/Matt Sl


U.S. Passengers don’t want inflight call service. It’s a pretty straight forward preference made abundantly clear to airlines operating in the US.

So what’s the big deal? Why is this topic generating so controversy, leading to ongoing debate, proposed rules and petitions to the FCC?

To understand this topic, it’s important to know that it’s not about calls at all. It’s about equipment.

The Cellular Phone Ban

Since 1991, The FCC banned the use of cellular phones on board aircraft. This rule was introduced because of concerns over interference with aircraft equipment. It’s a similar concern as the one which prompted the ban on the use of Personal Electronic Devices in-flight, though specific to the 800 MHz frequency cell phones use.

Since the 1990s airlines have been able to provide satellite-based communications for data service, but after that 1991 FCC rule they could not allow cellular-based communications of any kind (calls or texts).

That’s where we stand now. Passengers using satellite-based communications or Wi-Fi services like Gogo, which don’t rely on the same frequencies as cellular phones, can send text messages and use data to surf the net, for example, on aircraft equipped for these services on which PEDs are permitted. Technically, those same services could provide voice services now, but as we previously reported, airlines have taken into consideration that passengers don’t want calls onboard. They have restricted this use.

Rules Outside the U.S.

Outside the US, services like OnAir allow both inflight cell use and Wi-Fi services to airlines. Airlines equipped with these services have to switch off all access to cell phones once they enter US Airspace, while the rule stands. This includes voice and texts right now. Passengers who have no objections to either voice or text onboard their flight, and who might want to use it just as they did before entering US Airspace, lose that connection during this portion of their flight.

As OnAir explains:

“OnAir provides inflight cell phone and Wi-Fi services to 21 airlines around the world, including leading global airlines such as Aeroflot, British Airways, Emirates, Philippine Airlines, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. Mobile OnAir, the inflight cell phone service, 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.

“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 inflight 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.”

Lifting the Ban on Personal Electronic Devices

The debate began when the restrictions on the use of Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) were first lifted. The FAA determined that there may be no risk of interference to aircraft, something they require airlines to prove for specific equipment, an on-going process, as Skift previously reported.

In addressing the issue of PED use, the FAA requested that airlines prove using PEDs for cellular connections (voice or text) were also safe. As the DOT explains in their notice of proposed rule making for calls in-flight:

“DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has authority over whether Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) using cellular technology can be safely used on aircraft. Pursuant to FAA guidance, InFO 13010, “Expanding the Use of Passenger Portable Electronic Devices(PED), in order to allow passengers to use portable electronic devices aircraft operators must first make a determination that passenger PEDs used on board their aircraft will not cause interference with the navigation or communication systems. This determination includes assessing the risks of potential cellular-induced avionics problems.“

To allow use of PEDs in general, airlines must also prove that mobile use of these PEDs would not cause interference.

On this move, the FCC presented its own rule-making document which would revoke the 1991 restriction, and allow the use of mobile phones in-flight. Today, mobile phones are used as much for text services as calls. Consumer use of this equipment has evolved. As the FCC explains in its proposed rule:

“Consistent with our continued efforts to increase consumer access to broadband and the FAA’s recent actions, this proposal would provide airlines with the technological tools to offer additional in-cabin communications services to their passengers at their discretion. Our proposal is focused on data services, but it is technology-neutral; we do not propose to limit the use of mobile communications services on airborne aircraft to non-voice applications. Deployment of such services, including etiquette and other rules, would be at the discretion of individual airlines, within the context of any rules or guidelines established by the FAA.”

Because the FCC’s language leaves all cellular applications at the discretion of airlines, it has raised concerns. The objective of this rule, which would remove the restriction from 1991, was to extend the variety of connectivity options available to passengers: satellite-based, Air-to-Ground Network and Hybrid Networks, or mobile based connections. Of these three, only the mobile based are currently banned. The FCC points out that this is inconsistent.

While the debate goes on, this inconsistent availability of service continues, prohibiting its use for both voice and text. Foreign operators still have to disconnect the service on entering US airspace.

To put it simply, the FCC wants to revoke its previous ban and, while it is debated, the FCC has not yet done so. Competition between suppliers who use mobile-phone connections and the other players providing communications is stifled.

The DOT’s Proposed Rule

The proposed rule-making document from the DOT, introduced in February 12 of this year, adds another layer of complication. It acknowledges the FAA’s and FCC’s right to make technical determinations on what will and will not interfere with passenger aircraft. It acknowledges reasons for the lifting the ban on the use of PEDs in-flight. It intends, however, to eliminate the discretionary aspect of in-flight calls.

By implementing the proposed use, the DOT would make restricting voice calls mandatory. The process to determine just how this would be mandatory, how the law should be written is ongoing. The proposed rule making document is based on a lengthy study of the impact of allowing calls onboard, still to be carried out. Once this study is completed, there will need to be a review of just how the rule will be implemented and enforced. Should cellular calls be prohibited starting at the gate, for example? Should they only go into effect at take off? These are some of the questions the DOT lists on its proposed rule. Determining the wording of the rule and how it should be applied is time consuming.

This delays moving forward in one direction or another and makes implementation confusing to airlines. This is the crux of the arguments against it from airline groups, the Telecommunications Industry Association and suppliers like OnAir. They argue that allowing the FCC rule to be revoked would not immediately lead to voice calls as that aspect of service can be switched off at any point. By leaving it up to airlines, airlines can decide (based on customer preferences) at what point during the flight inflight calls are blocked.

Any implementation of the proposed rule by the DOT would require that it first be revoked, at some future date, if consumer preferences changed. Perhaps that might never happen, but if it did it could take just as long to revoke it has taken to decide whether to implement it in the first place.

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