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Travelers to DOT: No Inflight Calls, Please!

SmarterTravel

To all appearances, the hot-button issue of inflight phone calls has been settled. If you’ve flown on a U.S. carrier lately, you’ve almost certainly heard no one yakking on a cellphone or other mobile device while airborne, and you might well assume that there’s an outright ban on inflight calling.

Indeed, the Association of Flight Attendants has called for such a ban on the calls. A no-call bill was introduced in Congress. The DOT signaled its general opposition to inflight cell use on safety grounds, in particular that it would distract passengers from attending to routine safety announcements and flight crew instructions in emergency situations. And several airline CEOs pledged it will never happen on their planes.

While the DOT never formalized its inflight call policy, the FCC did:

Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off.

Although that might seem to put an end to the matter, it doesn’t. The FCC rule allows for the possibility of making calls via Wi-Fi, as is easily done using popular phone apps such as FaceTime, WeChat, and the like. And while the technology may differ, Wi-Fi calls are no different from cellular calls in terms of their effects. They’re annoying, disruptive, and, as has been argued by many airline workers, they can create an unsafe condition in flight.

While that loophole has existed since the FCC rule went into effect, travelers and U.S. airlines have proceeded as though there were an outright ban on any and all inflight calls.

In December 2016, the DOT proposed a new rule that explicitly acknowledged the possibility of using Wi-Fi or other non-cellular technology to make calls, and would require the airlines to advise passengers prior to booking if inflight calling is permitted on their flights. According to the DOT:

Consumers deserve to have clear and accurate information about whether an airline permits voice calls before they purchase a ticket and board the aircraft. Today’s proposal will ensure that air travelers are not unwillingly exposed to voice calls, as many of them are troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight.

The DOT gave the public 60 days to leave their comments regarding inflight voice calls. That feedback deadline passed last week, at which time there were more than 8,000 comments, overwhelmingly negative. A random sampling:

  • PLEASE DO NOT ALLOW CELLPHONE USAGE on airplanes. We already are able to use our computers to communicate and do not need to be disturbed while on a crowded airplane by other’s private conversations.
  • Please do not allow cell phone voice conversations during flight for airplanes. Passengers talk more loudly on a cell phone than they do during normal conversation and they are not aware of what is going on around them when they are involved in cell phone conversation. This is a real danger during an emergency.
  • As a 34 year veteran flight crew member, I am 100% against allowing people to make voice calls on commercial airline flights. This is a bad idea. Aircraft have gotten smaller with more seats. Stress levels and impatience with air travel is at all time high. Adding this component to the cabin environment is dangerous. There will be disagreements about the propriety of conversations taking place in this public setting that will surely erupt into air rage situations when someone makes a judgment about the conversations going on around them. Just say no to voice calls on planes because there is no adequate separation and privacy in these environments.
  • PLEASE prohibit any cell phone calls on aircraft! The aircraft are confining enough and there is enough noise with people having conversations, and children/babies crying.

If the DOT takes the feedback to heart, it will go beyond requiring airlines to advise passengers that calls are permitted on their flights and simply ban all such calls altogether. The people have spoken, loudly and clearly.

Reader Reality Check

Inflight calls: Yea or nay?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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