SHOULD THEY ALLOW PHONES ON PLANES?
Story and illustration by Christopher Elliott
Is it time to allow phone calls on planes?
European regulators think so. This summer, the European Union quietly cleared in-flight cell phones for takeoff, saying that allowing cell phones on planes would allow for more technological innovation. The EU designated certain frequencies for in-flight 5G technology, which would allow airlines to create an in-flight network capable of handling phone calls.
“The sky is no longer the limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity,” noted Thierry Breton, the EU's commissioner for the internal market.
But most American air travelers still strongly oppose the use of cell phones on a flight, arguing that they don't want to be in a confined space with someone making a call. A minority of passengers say having a conversation is harmless and that the ban is preventing them from getting important work done on the plane.
I'll tell you who's right in just a minute.
Many passengers are "totally against" allowing phone calls on planes.
"I am totally against phone calls on planes," says Stephanie Wolkin, a retired educational worker from White Bear Lake, Minn.
She says people talk too much on planes already, and they are "loud and obnoxious."
"Can you imagine the cacophony?" she asks.
Allowing phones might also be unsafe, passengers worry.
"If the phone call policy was liberalized, I think it might make it difficult to hear important safety announcements," says Susan Sherren, founder of Couture Trips, a travel agency. "Planes are confined spaces, and airlines should protect those spaces and keep them free from phone calls."
Some etiquette experts agree that phones should not be permitted on planes.
"Oh, for the love of Pete!" says Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette consultant. "Please do not encourage passengers to make calls on planes."
Air travel is is stressful enough, she adds. "To have people engaged in extended conversations onboard would be torturous."
So, to sum up the arguments against making voice calls on planes, it's potentially unsafe and definitely annoying. Mostly annoying. So it shouldn't be allowed.
Some passengers think it's time to legalize phone calls on planes.
For other passengers, and especially business travelers, the cell phone ban is silly. You can already make internet calls as long as you're connected to the in-flight Wi-Fi network. Why not make it official?
"We put up with babies crying, nonstop conversation of passengers, and annoying seatmates who have to get up and go to the restroom constantly," says Andy Abramson, a frequent traveler and a communications consultant from Las Vegas. "So I ask, 'What's the big deal?'"
He says many business travelers routinely ignore ban on in-flight calls. They simply log on to the plane's Wi-Fi network and start talking.
"My phone has rung many times on a plane," says Barry Graham, a sales manager based in Washington, D.C. "Which is really annoying when I know that I could be arrested for answering it."
Graham says the in-flight ban doesn't make sense to him because it prevents him from participating in all calls, including web conferences where he doesn't even need to speak.
Practically speaking, the law against phone calls is almost never enforced. I couldn't find any record of a passenger being arrested for making an illegal phone call. But you should mind what you say when you're allowed to make a call. A few weeks ago in India, a man was arrested after discussing plans to hijack the plane before takeoff.
The pro-call passengers wonder how making phone calls became such a controversial topic. After all, you could make a call from a plane until 2013, when the last Airfones were decommissioned. What happened in the decade between?
The likeliest answer: Airlines kept taking things away from passengers, including legroom, the ability to carry a bag on the plane, seat assignments. The one thing they haven't removed yet is the peace and quiet at cruising altitude.
Bottom line: The pro-phone folks believe calls are safe and that banning them stands in the way of personal freedom and progress.
Who's right about making phone calls on planes?
The anti-call passengers make a valid point about unwanted noise. The cabin of an airliner can be chaotic and loud, so why add to the confusion?
But their main argument that it somehow makes a flight less safe doesn't really fly. Swarun Kumar, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says aviation safety experts are no longer concerned that wireless calls could interfere with cockpit equipment.
"In fact, using data when airborne is technically not a violation, and of course, plenty of travelers use in-flight Wi-Fi," he adds.
I'm not aware of any evidence that in the Airfone days, the handsets distracted passengers from the in-flight safety announcements or somehow made flying less safe, either.
So maybe the time is right to consider allowing phone calls on domestic airlines, which EU regulators have already recognized. You can't turn the cabin into a no-call zone in 2023. People need to communicate. But there's a right way to do it.
How to make a responsible phone call in flight
There are two key issues when it comes to in-flight phone calls. The first is, who gets to make a call, and when?
Airlines would have to communicate their policies clearly in advance. They would need to address issues like when calls are not allowed, such as during in-flight safety announcements or during takeoff and landing. And they would need to enforce those rules, probably by disabling the network during those times.
More importantly, airline crew would need to brief passengers on proper phone manners, since this is a topic passengers have not been taught in school. It's not OK to have a loud conversation in the middle of the night when your seatmate is trying to sleep, for example.
Issue number two: Where do we put the talkers? Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert, says airlines consider creating a quiet cabin where phone calls aren't allowed, like Acela's Quiet Car. I'm sure there's an airline revenue manager or two out there imagining the extra fees that selling seats in a quiet cabin could generate.
"There are so many compelling and legitimate reasons to be reachable by phone at 35,000 feet that coming up with some sort of etiquette-approved solution is worthwhile," he says.
We're still a long way from being able to make legal phone calls from a plane in the United States. But it is time to start thinking about how we'll handle voice calls when they become a reality.
It's not a question of if it will happen, but when.
Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate, and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. He publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and the Elliott Report, a news site about customer service. If you need help with a consumer problem, you can reach him here or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.