The international story on in-flight communications

We’ve all been stuck on a train or eating at a café and ended up sitting near a person having a loud conversation on the phone. This individual may chat with a friend about utter nonsense, but ends up doing an utterly good job of ruining our trip or our lunch.

It’s no wonder then why some Washington lawmakers – citing obnoxious phone users – are voicing concerns about letting airline passengers make phone calls during domestic flights.  One Congressman went so far as to say that the “flying experience in the United States would be forever changed for the worse if voice calls are allowed on flights.”

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The issue is coming to the public consciousness now because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is voting on a technical proceeding on December 12 that looks at whether cellphone data and voice use will interfere with networks on the ground.  But because non-US airlines have been allowing passengers to use cellphones on flights for years, conventional thinking is that the FCC will find no technical problems.

On international flights, it’s not unusual to see a fellow passenger pick up his cell phone and make a call, whether it’s to check voicemail or quickly update family or business associates on the ground. These calls are short and infrequent. According to recent industry data, most calls last approximately two minutes with only an average of six calls made per flight.

And the ability to provide connectivity hasn’t created the negative scenarios some members are warning about.  According to recent survey data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of foreign airline operators, there have been “no negative passenger comments or complaints related to on-board cell phone use” along with no “cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations.”

In an interview, an Emirates vice president said of in-flight cell phone use, “We’ve not seen any of the nightmare scenarios. Usage growth is huge month to month, and feedback to cabin crew has been overwhelmingly positive. The attitude from passengers has been, ‘why wasn’t this done sooner?’”

As in-flight calling grows in popularity with international travelers, it only makes sense that the United States is considering adopting a similar policy.

On Thursday, the FCC will discuss revising the rules to give domestic airlines the ability to allow passengers to use their mobile wireless devices to make voice calls over 10,000 feet. If approved, passengers would be able to make in-flight calls if their wireless carrier has a roaming agreement with the airline’s airborne communications provider. Passengers would then “roam” onto the in-flight network, their wireless carrier would set pricing for airborne use, and charges would be billed to the passenger through their wireless provider.

If the FCC moves forward, this transition wouldn’t happen overnight. Airlines would need to install the proper equipment, set their own policies governing in-flight usage, and negotiate with wireless providers.

Given how fast foreign competitors are embracing full in-flight communications – with almost half of the market expecting to use the technology by 2022 – it’s only a matter of time before the domestic market demands these services as well. Thankfully, the body of evidence suggests that when this transition arrives, passengers can rest assured that airline travel will continue to be free of loud, lengthy, and obnoxious phone conversations.

Bruner is the vice president, Global Communications Services, of Panasonic Avionics Corporation, the world’s leading supplier of in-flight entertainment and communications tools.