Skift Take

People don’t want calls in-flight in the U.S., but they want their in-flight connectivity and free use of their personal electronic devices.  You can sometimes get what you want, and it’s not what you want.

The in-flight call ban could turn out to be a bigger headache for tech-savvy passengers than the phone calls it was drafted to prevent.

It’s no one’s fault. It’s just a matter of good intentions paving the way to a failure to communicate.

Among the 1,775 comments the USDOT received to its “Use of Mobile Devices for Voice Calls on Aircraft, Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (ANPRM), there’s one anonymous consumer comment which speaks to the problem beautifully. (Emphatic capitalization as written by Anonymous.)

“I do NOT support cell phone use on flights. I just read an article in my local paper regarding the use of cell phones on planes. I did not read the 22 page document associated with this issue. PLEASE, please do NOT allow the use of phones on planes.”

The request is candid, reasonable and succinct. It echoes the feelings of the many other civilians who commented on the Docket prior to the deadline on March 26.  A broad majority don’t want calls made on planes, and no one read the Docket. Well, maybe a few. The Docket in question, like any other document produced for aviation regulations is written in Aviation English (Aviation English–more letters than your average bowl of Alpha Bits, with numbers for extra nutrition) and a healthy dose of legalese.

Fortunately, Skift has a native Aviation English speaker on the team, at ease with legalese. Reading the nitty-gritty details, after preparing a recent summary of the nature of the debate, has given us plenty of food for thought on the unintended repercussions to technology already in the cabin—when this proposed rule finally becomes a rule.

What’s in the Docket?

The basic premise of the argument is straight-forward. Calls are bad. Passengers don’t want calls. Crew don’t want calls. Calls in-flight could be harmful to passengers. In the comments, no one involved in any part of the industry: airlines, connectivity suppliers, regulators, industry groups–no one–said that people should make calls on planes. No one in the U.S. intends to allow calls—only the ability to connect via a cellular connection (not for calls), as opposed to via satellite, or via alternative air-to-ground and hybrid connections.

The DOT is proposing a pre-emptive rule, in case anyone thinks of allowing calls in future. The DOT isn’t just saying that making calls is bad. It suggests that making calls is unfair treatment, and possibly a health hazard.

Unfairness, Deception, Risks and Gate-to-Gate

The DOT compares the unfairness and deceptive practices of airlines allowing calls to long tarmac delays. It compares the possible health hazard from being near people making calls to the health hazards from passengers smoking on an aircraft. It points out that it has already made rules against both of these, which gives it the right to think about making rules for calls.

Of these two existing rules it mentions, one is an airline infraction and the other is a crime. Both take effect on boarding. One can earn an airline steep penalties, and the other can get passengers arrested and fined. Because of these repercussions, the DOT asked for help on exactly how to define the infraction and how to write the rule, which will then have to be enforced.

Should the DOT fine airlines for failing to make sure passengers onboard don’t sneak a call? If so, how, when? The DOT is not sure whether the rule should be in place gate-to-gate or only after the doors close, or as the plane prepares for take off. Are passengers making calls doing the same harm as smokers?

Define Device

The DOT also asked for help defining the voice-enabled mobile and electronic devices to which this rule should apply. Why?

Cellular doesn’t mean cellular phones alone. Today, there are so many electronic devices doing so many different things from playing games to surfing the net, to talking to friends on the net about the games your playing with them, that the DOT isn’t really sure what a voice-enabled mobile and electronic device is. On the Docket, the Department asked for help defining what devices will need to be blocked to prevent calls in-flight. Specifically, the Docket states:

“We would consider this definition to include: cellular handsets, computers, tablets, electronic games, and any other device that uses radio links to establish a voice call with another party or parties.”

The DOT says some requests weren’t just for bans on “radio links” alone. Instead some worded their request (per the docket): “that voice over internet or cellular broadband should be banned to reduce in-flight disruptions.”

This makes things even blurrier. As experts in the technology have explained to Skift, blocking GSM voice calls (the voice calls feature of the currently banned cellular connections) is straight forward. It is on or off. Blocking calling features of other forms of connection (those which are currently approved and already in-flight) is also straight forward. Access or No Access. Blocking voice over internet protocol (VoIP) connections entirely is nearly impossible.

As an expert source told Skift, VoIP calls can be made via those same high-speed internet connections already flying. It’s possible to block applications which use a known signature or port, but there are ways around it. For example, if a passenger uses a Virtual Private Network (VPN) session, the system controller granting access to the internet has difficulty separating that voice data from other data.

The only way to block that from happening would be to block all data to the point where it would make other non-voice applications rubbish. Blocking VPNs would hurt business people who connect to their offices for work—not make calls. That would make connectivity onboard pointless to many business travellers. As they put it: “Short answer is there is no 100% ‘kill switch’ for VoIP that is currently available, or viable.”

Depending how a future rule is written, to comply, the industry might have to once again restrict the types of electronic devices allowed and the types of data use allowed on internet connections.

Calls Are Bad, Telephones Are OK

An interesting revelation in the Docket is that the one device in the plane which can only be used for making calls—seat embedded telephones—is not viewed as such a problem by the DOT. It states:

“While some planes may already have seat-back phones in place, we believe that most are rarely used and the Department’s concern is not about individual calls but rather the cumulative impact of allowing in-flight calls in close quarters.”

It also argues that costs for calls on seat-back phones are a limiting factor. All connectivity providers, including those using cellular connections, have said that making calls on their networks are pricey too—which is why the largest portion of their customers use the connection for data, emails and text or for using the call feature for a short period to listen to voice mail, according to their comments to the rule.

Is Talking as Toxic as Smoking?

The association of calls with a potential health hazard, like smoking on planes, is also problematic. It’s relatively easy for flight crew to identify a passenger smoking. It is not easy to figure out when a person is using not-a-phone to make a call. Flight attendants could have as much of a hard time identifying which equipment is which as the DOT. The emergence of phablets, for example, could make this especially tricky, tech sources suggested.

Note that Cranfield University (UK), which specializes in analyzing cabin safety and health factors say the health issue does not hold water. As pointed in comments to the rule, Cranfield says the ability to hear callers is cancelled out by “cabin background noise.”

This could explain why those already sneaking those calls over VPN and other connections (yes, we know you’re out there) haven’t been caught and no one has complained. Besides, right now, those tech-savvy passengers aren’t breaking any laws. If this rule is drafted to prohibit all calls, on all connections, they would be.

The Status Quo vs. The Status ¿Qué?

As we stand now, the FAA has determined that electronic devices, no matter what they’re used for, cause no dangerous interference with modern aircraft. Therefore, the PED restrictions have begun to be lifted on flights. The FCC points out that the only type of connection not allowed is mobile cellular connectivity (not only calls—all cellular connectivity) and the FCC believes that’s not fair competitive practice.

The Status Quo opens the doors to PEDs, but keeps passengers and airlines from being able to connect their devices by any means other than the approved satellite and air-to-ground or hybrid. When the FCC lifts its 1991 ban, that would allow all types of connections for data, text, and, yes voice, but voice only at the discretion of the airline.

The FCC has made it clear in its comments to the Docket that it does not support voice calls because of preferences expressed by U.S. passengers. U.S. airlines have said they do not support calls because of passenger preferences.

Were the Docket to become a Draft, to become a Rule, to become enforceable, the Status Quo would shift—to comply with however the rule is ultimately written.

The DOT Explains

Wanting to know where the DOT stands on these dilemmas, we reached out to the Department with questions specific to these quandaries. We did not get answers to these specific points, but were told by a DOT Spokesperson:

“The NPRM is being drafted as DOT evaluates the comments from the ANPRM. At this point, there is no final determination as to what the NPRM will say, let alone a final rule.”


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Tags: dot, in-flight

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