Sunday, November 03, 2013

New Airplane-Gadget Rule Reopens Debate on Yakking: Should Airline Passengers Be Able to Make Voice Calls While Airborne?

The Wall Street Journal

By Jack Nicas and  Andy Pasztor

Nov. 3, 2013 8:04 p.m. ET

Federal approval to use electronic devices throughout flights has revived a related debate over whether airline passengers should also be able to make voice calls while airborne.

Under the Federal Aviation Administration's new guidelines, fliers can use tablets, e-readers and even smartphones from gate to gate, but those devices must be switched to "airplane mode," disabling cellular connections.

The FAA has said it doesn't have safety concerns about the in-flight use of cellphones. Instead, the agency is complying with the Federal Communications Commission's ban on cellular connections in flight, designed to avoid interference with cell towers on the ground.

The same FAA advisory group that recommended lifting most restrictions on electronic devices also considered the pros and cons of allowing fliers to talk on cellphones in the cabin. But partly because the FAA determined voice communication was outside the committee's jurisdiction, they punted to the FAA and the FCC to discuss the ban on in-flight cellular connections.

The report, approved by the committee's 28 members, including airline officials, union representatives and device makers, said the issue was too important to be ignored and urged the FAA to "consult" with the FCC about lifting its ban.

Fliers appear split on whether voice calls should be allowed. A survey of more than 1,600 U.S. adults included in the FAA advisory group's report shows that 51% of respondents felt negatively toward in-flight phone calls, while 47% felt positively. When asked what, if anything, should be banned during flights, 61% said phone calls, more than double the response for the No. 2 answer: alcohol.

Customers told JetBlue Airways Corp. that "the cabin environment would be polluted with the additional noise," JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said. "While we'd probably be able to support that technology, it's really up to the customer."

Delta Air Lines Inc. spokesman Paul Skrbec said, "We have tons of research for many, many years that says customer don't want other customers on the phone on the plane."

The FAA advisory group's report said that "voice communication in the small, confined space of an airplane cabin" raises thorny privacy and other social issues, which could result in "interpersonal friction between" passengers.

U.S. rules already permit calls on planes equipped with Wi-Fi, using services such as Skype and Viber that enable devices to make phone calls through Internet, rather than cellular, connections. The FAA reiterated last week that this is allowed.

But airlines and the companies that provide in-flight Wi-Fi ban these services. Carriers said they believe their fliers overwhelmingly reject allowing in-flight phone calls.

The FAA advistory group said that in-flight calls are far more accepted abroad, with one survey showing that 68% of international fliers said they approve of phone calls on board.

In July 2012, the FAA completed a survey of foreign-aviation regulators that allowed such services and found that none of the authorities "reported any cases of air rage or flight-attendant interference related to passengers using cellphones."

Some international carriers have invested in picocell technology, an onboard station that connects fliers' phones to cell towers on the ground, to enable passengers to make in-flight phone calls.

Foreign carriers cease this service over U.S. airspace, "but there is growing interest in continuing operation when over the U.S.," the advisory group's report said.

Talmon Marco, chief executive of Viber Media Inc., said he has used his company's mobile app to make voice calls through the onboard Wi-Fi on international airlines without problem. When Mr. Marco made a call during a Delta flight last year using Viber via Wi-Fi, though, a flight attendant asked him to end the call. Following a debate about the airline's policy, he said, airport police escorted him off the plane after it landed.

"This is a cultural thing, not a safety or security thing," he said. "People should be able to use phones. There's no difference between an airline and a bus."

Some industry experts question the ultimate size of the market for in-flight voice communication. Christopher Baugh, founder and president of satellite-consulting firm Northern Sky Research, said that "data is a must-have for passengers, voice is not." Mr. Baugh predicted that "there is absolutely going to be a pushback" if it appears that cellphone conversations may be allowed to proliferate in airliner cabins.

"You can be sure a lot of people would object strongly to voice communications" on airplanes, said Roger Rusch, another satellite consultant.

The FCC said it hasn't yet discussed the ban with the FAA. An FAA spokeswoman said, "The FAA defers to the FCC on this issue ... though the FAA would work with the FCC to facilitate any changes they make." She also pointed out that a FCC representative was on the FAA advisory committee.

For now, U.S. carriers must craft policies to implement the new FAA rules for in-flight device use, for one, determining what constitutes a larger item that must be stowed during takeoff and landing. That is a complicated task given the increasingly complex world of devices. Some laptops today are smaller than some tablets, for instance.

JetBlue, which along with Delta on Friday became one of the first U.S. airlines to allow passengers to use devices from gate to gate, told its cabin crews that passengers must stow devices they can't easily hold in one hand.

Delta said that passengers must stow any device heavier than 2 lbs. but that attendants are generally telling fliers they must stow laptops but can use tablets and e-readers. An 11-inch Apple Inc. MacBook Air, one of the lightest laptops on the market, weighs 2.4 lbs.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA also noted that it would be difficult for attendants to tell whether passengers have their devices in airplane mode. Delta and JetBlue said that while they're educating customers about the FCC's ban on in-flight cell connections, they don't plan to ensure every passenger is complying.

"We can say, 'Please make sure your devices are in airplane mode,' but we don't have to police that," Ms. Dervin of JetBlue said.

Many passengers had hated and disobeyed the old rule, but that wasn't the biggest headache for cabin crews. Airlines for America, a trade group, said that in 2011 and 2012, alcohol-related incidents accounted for more than three times as many passenger-misconduct reports as failure to obey device rules.


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