Skift Take

Is the passenger in the middle seat on your flight going to be talking endlessly on his or her Samsung Galaxy given international roaming rates of $1 to $2 per minute? Doubtful. Foreign airlines' flights that allow voice calls average just five or six calls per flight, with an average duration of a couple of minutes per call. Are opponents making too much noise about the issue? Could be.

As the FCC considers a proposal this week to rewrite what it characterizes as its “outdated rules” on in-flight systems that would support voice calls, data and texting from mobile phones, the ironies are many.

Consider that:

  • U.S. passengers already use their mobile phones to make in-flight voice calls, access data and send texts; they just do so outside of U.S. airspace, and on a bevy of foreign airlines, ranging from British Airways and SAS to Emirates and Etihad.
  • The FAA already certifies onboard GSM systems from providers such as UK-based AeroMobile on certain U.S.-manufactured Boeing aircraft, albeit for foreign carriers.
  • AeroMobile has roaming agreements for customers of AT&T and T-Mobile, and competitor OnAir has a roaming pact with AT&T, all useful for U.S. travelers making in-flight voice calls or using data services outside U.S. airspace only.
  • In the unlikely event that the FCC doesn’t decide to proceed with a notice of proposed rulemaking and maintains the status quo, then foreign airlines would continue to have a competitive advantage over U.S. airlines in providing these voice and data services from mobile phones, particularly on longhaul flights frequented by business travelers.

Just three days before the FCC was slated to discuss a proposed rulemaking on in-flight wireless services from mobile phones — a discussion that is not limited to the voice call issue — the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, Representative Bill Shuster, introduced a bill that would have the DOT write regulations to ban in-flight voice calls from mobile phones on U.S. passenger airlines.

Kevin Rogers, CEO of AeroMobile, a unit of Panasonic Avionics, was recently in Washington, D.C., discussing these issues with FCC commissioners, House members and their staff.

Rogers says that while he isn’t surprised about U.S. opposition in some quarters to enabling in-flight voice calls from mobile devices, including the bill to ban the practice, he believes the furor is unnecessary.

That’s because if U.S. airlines decide that in-flight voice calls wouldn’t be beneficial for their passengers, then they could, as AeroMobile customers Lufthansa and Aer Lingus have done, deactivate voice service by default, or turn it off at night, and keep data and text services enabled, for example, Rogers says.

Most passengers use data and text services even if voice calls are an option, Rogers says.

“I struggle to understand why this (ban) is necessary because the service can be regulated by the airline, and that’s what happens worldwide,” Rogers says.

Rogers says he’s “confident” there have been no incidents related to voice call use on flights involving AeroMobile’s customer airlines in the several years that the service has been in use. As is the standard, voice calls on these airlines get enabled at 10,000 feet.

The seeming lack of a problem occurs despite the fact that AeroMobile’s airline customers in November 2013 operated 347 flights per day on average with voice-activated services. With intenational roaming charges being very pricey, more than 80% of passengers opted to use text and/or data instead of voice.

Flights with AeroMobile voice service averaged only 5.8 calls per flight, and the average call length was 2.22 minutes.

Rogers concedes that the cost of international roaming charges may not be much of an issue to some passengers at the front of the plane, and voice calls can at times be longer than the 2.22-minute average.

Rogers admits he can’t speak for the behavior patterns of U.S. travelers. Neither AeroMobile nor OnAir have any U.S. airline customers, given the current prohibitions.

But, he adds, “the vast majority of people are self-regulating in confined space.”

The FAA in late October approved the use of personal electronic devices during flights with  cellular connections disabled.

Meanwhile, the FCC on December 12 will consider opening up a feedback loop on expanding in-flight capabilities to take in cellular services, including possibly voice calls from mobile devices.

AeroMobile and OnAir, both of which unsurprisingly back having the FCC approve use of their’s and similar systems on U.S. airlines, get a revenue share out of the international roaming charges from in-flight voice calls, and in turn share  a portion of that revenue with their respective airline customers.

Unlike with in-flight Wi-Fi, passengers get billed by their wireless carriers for in-flight voice calls, and don’t pay extra charges to the airlines.

Rogers argues that U.S. airlines would continue to be cut off from this ancillary revenue if the FCC’s policies don’t change.

Some travelers are vehemently opposed to voice calls on flights while a recent Skift Asks survey of the U.S. Internet population found this sentiment wasn’t as negative as some media reports would suggest.

Any changes in FCC policy would mean that implementation on U.S. airlines, whether it be for voice, data and text services, or just for the latter two, would probably be about two years away.

Says Rogers: “We can’t fight the U.S. emotion. But if you really believe voice is going to be a problem for your passengers, you don’t have to activate it.”


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Tags: faa, fcc, smartphones

Photo credit: A passenger desperate to use his phone on a US Air flight. Skift

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