US debate on in-flight voice calls heats up.

US debate on in-flight voice calls heats up.

Steve Creedy - editor

14 Dec 2016

Authorities want pre-flight warnings if voice calling is available.

Phone calls on planes, should they be allowed? Photo: Steve Creedy

To phone or not to phone has become a fiery issue for US airline passengers after the Department of Transportation recently proposed rules that would govern the use of  wireless voice calls during flights.

The prospect of onboard voice calls, already allowed by some non-US  airlines,  moved a step closer for Americans when the DoT proposed that the calls be allowed provided airlines and ticket agents tell travellers beforehand.

US  Federal Communications Commission rules currently prohibit using mobile devices  to make voice calls but they do not cover wi-fi or apps that make it possible to make voice over internet protocol (VOIP) calls.

The rules banning mobile devices were adopted in 1991 in response to the threat of widespread interference to terrestrial networks from airborne mobile phones capable of transmitting long distances.

 The introduction on aircraft of “picocells” allows an onboard system to receive low-powered signals from personal devices and transmit them through an antenna to a satellite or ground station.  

Although the use of picocells for voice calls is not prohibited  by the FCC, the DoT  the  Transportation Department said it was not aware of any US carrier that currently allowed them.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the proposal to give warning before buying a ticket would ensure that travellers were not unwillingly exposed to voice calls.

He noted many travellers were troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight.

The DoT contends that that allowing voice calls without adequate warning would be an unfair and deceptive practice.  It also worries that advancing technology will make voice class cheaper and more prevalent.

“The Department believes that consumers would be unfairly surprised and harmed if they learned only after the purchase of a ticket (or, worse, after boarding the aircraft) that the carrier permits voice calls on its flights, ‘’ it said.  

The US transportation regulator is also seeking comment on whether disclosure is sufficient or it should simply ban voice calls on flights within, to or from the United States.

A notice of advanced rulemaking in 2014 saw most individual respondents express the opposition to the calls on the grounds they were disturbing, particularly in the confines of an aircraft cabin.

Unions representing pilots, flight attendants and other airline workers have also expressed safety concerns.

These ranged from an increased number of “air rage’’ incidents and a decrease in the ability to hear crewmember instructions to the possibility voice calls could be exploited by terrorists.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA,  described any decision other than to ban voice calls as “reckless”.

" Flight attendants have said previously that they fear the calls could lead to fights between passengers who want to make calls and passengers who don't want to listen to the conversations,’’ association president Sara Nelson told the Associated Press.

 "It threatens aviation security and increases the likelihood of conflict in the skies. It threatens safety for crews and passengers.’’

But industry group Airlines For America (A4A) said airlines should be able to make their own determination about whether to introduce the service based in the best interests of crew and customers.," Nelson said.

A straw poll of airlines by AP found Southwest, Alaska and Delta opposed to the calls.

United Airlines said it was reviewing the proposal and would listen to the views of customers and employees, while American referred questions to A4A.