Skift Take

The controversy about in-flight voice calls on U.S. airlines may be overstated. Foreign airlines have been allowing it for years, and there hasn't been a huge problem. Most passengers prefer texting and email anyway.

While Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler felt some heat and backtracked on his consideration of in-flight voice calls, at least 19 airlines in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America routinely permit passengers to gab on their mobile phones, and there haven’t been any reports of onboard riots or mutinies.

Actually, there isn’t a lot of “gabbing” going on because unless there is a special promotion, the rates for such calls are largely contingent on individual passengers’ international calling plans, and the phone calls are usually fairly brief. International roaming rates tend to be in the $3 to $4 per minute range, and are billed to the passenger by their network operator.

In fact, Ian Dawkins, the CEO of OnAir, which has provided in-flight GSM and Wi-Fi to airlines since 2007 and 2010, respectively, says the average in-flight voice call is less than two minutes, and commonly takes place before takeoff or after landing as passengers connect with families, colleagues and friends.

Here is a list of airlines, ranging from British Airways and Emirates to Air Asia and TAM, which are customers of OnAir and/or its competitor Aeromobile, and allow voice calls, SMS texting, and/or email and data on passengers’ mobile phones.

International Airlines Permitting Voice Calls, Texting and Data 

Airline Flights/Aircraft Voice calls Texting Email/data
1. Aer Lingus Long haul X X
2. Aeroflot A320, A330, B777 X X X
3. Air Asia Select short-haul flights X X X
4. Air France Select long haul B77-300 X X
5. Azerbaijan Airlines A320 X X X
6. British Airways A318 X X X
7. EgyptAir A330 X X X
8. Emirates Long haul to/from Dubai X X X
9. Etihad Long haul X X X
10. KLM B777-300 X X
11. Libyan Airlines A320, A330 X X X
12. Malaysia Airlines Select Boeing 777 flights X X X
13. Oman Air A330 flights X X X
14. Philippine Airlines A330, B777 X X X
15. Qatar Airways A320, B787 X X X
16. Royal Jordanian A320 X X X
17. SAS B737-883 X X X
18. Saudi Arabian Airlines A330, B777 X X X
19. Singapore Airlines Select A340, A380, B777 X X
20. TAM A320 family X X X
21. TAP Portugal Select A319s X X X
22. Transaero Select B747s, B777s X X X
23. Virgin Atlantic A330-300, B747-400 X X X

Source: OnAir, AeroMobile and Skift

Dawkins of OnAir, which supports the FCC overturning the voice-call ban in the U.S., tells Skift he understands the concern of some passengers and crew, but claims the company has never received a complaint about voice calls, that passengers are generally courteous because of the tight quarters, and that in-flight voice call behaviors mirror people’s habits on the ground in their normal lives.

Asked whether the airlines themselves would have received passenger complaints rather than OnAir, Dawkins says the feedback would have been shared with OnAir.

Restrictions Do Apply

In-flight voice calls indeed have restrictions: They are not allowed during takeoff or landings, airlines generally disable them at night, and the cockpit and crew have separate switches to turn off voice calls, if desired.

Dawkins says fewer than 10% of the 400,000 monthly OnAir “applications” — a voice call, text, email or data use — involve mobile calls as most passengers prefer texting and data retrieval.

On one recent flight on an unidentified airline passengers sent 3,100 texts, Dawkins says.

Many U.S. passengers are already making voice calls on flights on foreign airlines, although the capability is shuttered when approaching U.S. airspace, Dawkins says.

“What we found is that the reality is we haven’t had a single problem,” Dawkins claims. “Today, there are U.S. citizens flying on our connected aircraft every single day of the year, and they use this service until they reach the border. The question is why should their behavior change when they reach U.S. airspace.”

Dawkins advocates that U.S. airlines should take a phased approach, introducing voice calls on a trial basis to give the airline and crew confidence that it would not cause a problem.

“Progressive airlines may introduce it, and then other airlines will decide or not,” Dawkins says.

In this debate, there are certainly lots of things to talk about.

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Tags: amenities, fcc, in-flight, smartphones

Photo credit: This busy lady likes to make calls on the airplane. Sam Churchill / Flickr

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