Silent flight: Consumers voice opposition to in-flight calls

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When Virgin Atlantic let it be known last year that it would be allowing passengers to use mobile phones for voice calls on flights, many of the news stories and commentary about the decision assumed the worst.

“Annoyed yet?” began a CNN Travel report.

“Aeroplanes will no longer be a haven of a few hours peace,” declared an article in the London Evening Standard.

“Passengers who are already fed up with hearing loud mobile phone conversations on trains and buses may want to think twice before booking a flight with Virgin Atlantic,” declared London’s Mailonline.com.

Since then, however, what has been heard on the subject is mostly silence. A person would be hard-pressed to find publicly voiced complaints about passengers using the option.

In fact, as U.S. authorities debate whether to allow in-flight calls on mobile phones, the option is already being offered by nearly 20 airlines around the world — with more than a half-dozen others preparing to do the same in 2014 or beyond.

In the U.S., FCC commissioners voted Dec. 12 to initiate a rulemaking that would allow passengers to use mobile wireless services in-flight on airlines that equip their aircraft to provide it. Most of the commissioners, even the ones who would rather not see airlines let passengers make calls, said the FCC has no technical basis for continuing to forbid mobile device connectivity: In-flight satellite-based systems have demonstrated that their services do not interfere with flight-crew or ground-based wireless communications.

DOT and Congress get into the act

In U.S. airspace, however, in-flight mobile service could remain limited to texting, email, apps and other data-based uses of cellular technology, such as social networking and Web browsing.

Although the FCC’s proposed rule would allow everything, the Transportation Department (DOT) said it will consider prohibiting voice calls via its formal rulemaking process. In addition, members of Congress introduced bills this month that would ban such calls on domestic flights.

“For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone,” said Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Shuster’s bill to ban in-flight voice calls, H.R. 3676, immediately collected more than 20 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced a similar bill in the Senate, S. 1811, that has four Democratic co-sponsors, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif).

“This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts,” Alexander declared.

Possible culture clash

The fear articulated in Congress, however, seems out of sync with worldwide attitudes. It is possible, of course, that user behavior on domestic U.S. flights would be different as a result of social norms or the amount charged for the call. But there have been no obvious signs of a passenger cacophony or consumer backlash in other parts of the world.

The long list of airlines already offering voice calls — along with texting and Internet access — includes Virgin Atlantic Airways, Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways, SAS Scandinavian Airlines, TAM Airlines, Transaero Airlines and Aeroflot.

And the two primary providers of the technology, U.K.-based AeroMobile and Geneva-based OnAir, said that many more airlines have already have signed up to begin offering the full range of mobile device in-flight options within the next two years.

At Emirates, the texting and voice call option is available on all of its Airbus A380 flights and about 90 of its Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 and A340 aircraft. The Middle Eastern carrier already has spent tens of millions of dollars on the installation — the service made its debut more than five years ago — and its goal is to equip its entire fleet. In 2012, it began upgrading some of its aircraft to also allow for mobile data services such as Internet access.

The airline said that as many as 15% of passengers use the mobile service on some flights, with the highest usage coming on trips longer than 12 hours. Still, the airline said that most are using it for texting.

“Passengers disturbing others while on the phone has not been an issue,” the airline said. A call’s average length is 90 seconds, and even on quieter aircraft the cabin noise makes it difficult to hear someone talking as close by as across the aisle, the airline said.

Virgin Atlantic is reporting a similar experience.

“We’ve only had a handful of complaints,” an airline spokeswoman said. “In fact, we’ve had more people complaining that the service wasn’t onboard their aircraft.”

As with Emirates, she said that the majority of passengers use the service to send a brief text or make a quick call.

AeroMobile and OnAir officials say the average length of a call on all the aircraft they equip is about two minutes, probably to do things such as check voicemail or tell a family member or business associate about the flight’s status. For technological reasons, simultaneous use is limited to about six people, but even that number is rarely if ever reached. And customers are told to put their phones on mute or vibrate, so incoming calls do not disturb other passengers.

Crews also can turn off the voice call functionality with the push of a button. That could be done if the calls get out of hand, but the option primarily is used for situations such as late-night flying, when most passengers want to sleep.

The suppliers confirm airline reports that most passengers are not using the service for voice calls anyway. Voice use add up to less than 20% of users on AeroMobile-equipped aircraft and about 10% on jets outfitted by OnAir. One reason might be the cost: The pricing is akin to international roaming charges and can amount to $3 to $4 per minute.

Some global players that are offering or planning to offer mobile in-flight services, such as Singapore Airlines and Air France, are limiting their services to text and data. Of the 20 airlines currently using OnAir’s service, five do not allow calls.

Airlines voice opposition to voice

U.S. carriers might decide to go that direction, too: Most already express a reluctance to allow calls or rule it out entirely, citing customer concerns.

For example, Delta, which owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic and operates a joint venture with the British carrier, would seem a potential candidate for calls. But CEO Richard Anderson is already ruling out the possibility.

“If the FCC lifts its ban on cellular use in flight, Delta will move quickly to enable customers to use text, email and other silent data transmission services gate to gate,” Anderson wrote in a Dec. 18 memo to employees that the airline also issued as a press release. But, he continued, “Delta will not allow cellular calls or Internet-based voice communications onboard.”

In explaining his decision, Anderson cited direct feedback and survey results that revealed opposition from customers and in-flight crews.

The response from Delta and similar responses from JetBlue, Southwest and United suggests that even without government-imposed restrictions, they are more likely to follow the path of least resistance: offering mobile device usage for everything except calls. That would keep them competitive on services, particularly with business travelers, while avoiding the primary source of controversy (though also forgoing some revenue).

OnAir says it already has talked with U.S. carriers, which could offer mobile connectivity outside of U.S. airspace even without FCC action. AeroMobile, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Panasonic Avionics, also expects U.S. airline customers — but with the call capability turned off, at least on domestic flights.

“You don’t need to regulate it,” AeroMobile CEO Kevin Rogers said. “The airlines are quite capable of making the choice. They do already, all around the world.”

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