Friday, December 9, 2016

Transportation Department Weighs Allowing Phone Calls During Flights: Proposal requires carriers and ticket agents to disclose availability of voice calls during flights



The Wall Street Journal
By ANDY PASZTOR and  SUSAN CAREY
Updated Dec. 8, 2016 9:44 p.m. ET


Airline travelers already upset about shrinking seats and rising fees should steel themselves for a potential new cabin reality: listening to another passenger yakking on a mobile phone.

In a surprising and likely controversial step, U.S. aviation regulators on Thursday suggested they are leaning toward eventually allowing in-flight calls from airline passengers—with two important caveats: airlines will have the option of whether to provide the service, and passengers must be informed well in advance if the flight allows calls.

While the Transportation Department likely is years away from making a final decision, here’s why it is stepping up its review and a change could happen: calls on trains, buses and subways already are commonplace, and advances in onboard Wi-Fi—the technology enabling such calls miles above the Earth—are improving call quality.

The proposal won’t become final until agency officials analyze what is likely to be a torrent of public comments, many expected to be strongly opposed to calls in closed cabins. Airlines also could veto the move, and DOT could decide to ban all such airborne communications.

Some frequent fliers already are salivating at the prospect. “I’m going to start saving all my billing questions and help desk inquiries for the plane. My whole row can suffer with me on hold,” said Michael Greene, a Chicago-based sales specialist for GE Healthcare. “We’re all going to start learning a lot more about the people we get seated next to,” he said.

Phone calls on some flights are technically possible now using in-flight Wi-Fi services provided by companies like Gogo Inc. and ViaSat Inc. Most Android and Apple smartphones are capable of calling over a Wi-Fi signal, and such calls also are possible via web-based Skype and Google Voice services. Federal restrictions and airline rules, however, outlaw such voice communications.

Commuters on trains and buses already have cellular services available. In response, Amtrak and commuter railroads have introduced “quiet cars” to limit noise, including the din of cellphone conversations.

Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, a New York-based subway rider-advocacy group, says passengers have come to expect access to cell service at underground stations. It is viewed as “another miracle of daily commuting,” he said, adding passenger have grown accustomed to it.

“I don’t think it made much difference to the riding public,” Mr. Russianoff said.

In line with earlier comments by federal and industry officials suggesting widespread voice communications would pose unacceptable problems and privacy concerns for many passengers, the agency indicated it continues to mull whether to slap an outright ban on Wi-Fi-enabled phone calls affecting all flights through U.S. airspace, including foreign airlines serving U.S. cities.

DOT began seeking public input on this topic more than two years ago, noting on Thursday that “a substantial majority of individual commenters expressed opposition to voice calls on the grounds that they are disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.”

Still, if some U.S. carriers conclude they can embrace the potential for additional revenue without alienating too many customers, Thursday’s move could end up opening the door to optional services that over the years have been deemed highly objectionable by many fliers.

Numerous airlines in Europe, parts of Asia and the Middle East offer voice communications. The U.S. now bans all conventional cellular systems. Historically, the ban was supposed to prevent interference with cellphone towers on the ground. But now, DOT is looking to establish rules for Wi-Fi systems that weren’t covered by the original ban, and it is responding to consumer protection concerns rather than safety or interference issues.

As onboard Wi-Fi becomes more widespread and powerful, DOT projects that phone calls via such technology are likely to improve in quality, even as they become less expensive and more of a draw for passengers.

Against this changing backdrop, the DOT’s proposed rule adopts an unusual legal point. It argues that making it possible for some passengers to chat on phones—without providing adequate notice to others who unwittingly would hear those conversations—may amount to an unfair and deceptive practice.

The agency said officials believe “that consumers would be unfairly surprised and harmed if they learned only after the purchase of a ticket,” or even after boarding the aircraft, that the carrier permitted voice calls on flights.

Much of the industry’s immediate reaction was cautious. United Continental Holdings Inc. said it was reviewing the proposal “and will carefully evaluate the views of our customers and crew members on this topic.” Previously, Delta Air Lines Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp. said they intended to prohibit voice calls on their planes, regardless of regulatory action.

American Airlines Group Inc., the nation’s largest carrier by traffic, states as part of its Wi-Fi policies that passengers can purchase Wi-Fi aboard most of its domestic flights and internationally on its longest-range Boeing Co. 777 jets. But cellphone and other voice services aren’t available with its in-flight Wi-Fi.

The response from Charlie Leocha, chairman of travelers advocacy group Travelers United, was negative and adamant. The overwhelming feedback from passengers is that “nobody likes the concept of voice calls on planes,” he said. Nonetheless, some passengers already place voice calls via Skype or Google Voice and other technologies that use VOIP, or voice over internet protocols.

The consumer advocate said he could see a situation where one airline would allow voice calls on certain routes to appeal to business travelers, robbing traffic from a competing airline on the same routes that banned the practice.

The Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing 50,000 employees at 18 U.S. airlines, said anything short of banning all voice calls is “reckless,” adding that “it threatens aviation security and increases the likelihood of conflict in the skies.”

Flight attendants worry that loud conversations by passengers on any mobile device would lead to disruptions in the cabin. And they fear that passengers would grab their devices in emergencies, instead of listening to the attendants’ safety instructions.

But Airlines for America, the industry’s leading trade group, was much less negative, saying it doesn’t believe this is a matter for federal regulation. “We believe airlines should be able to determine which services can be safely offered in flight and make those decisions based on what is in the best interests of their passengers and crew members,” a spokeswoman said.

Original article can be found here:  http://www.wsj.com

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