Serenity Now: Cellphone Service on Airplanes is a Bad Idea

By Peter Bernstein November 22, 2013

There is an old saying that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should or even that it is a good idea.  The November 21 statement from new Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler about his interest in allowing the use of cellphones on airline flights once an aircraft has risen above 10,000 feet falls into that category.

If nothing else, even the hint that cellphone service on planes might become reality on U.S. carriers not only lit up the Internet, but has become headline news and the source of instant polling on virtually every mass media outlet in the country.  Thus far, and admittedly this is anecdotal evidence, the vast majority of the flying public has weighed in and they give the idea a big thumbs down.

 I just want to add my displeasure to the chorus.

A modest proposal?

First let’s look at what this is all about.  With the FCC having recently given the green light to Wi-Fi use on all parts of airline flights, it was probably inevitable that voice calling on cellphones on planes would be next.  After all:

  • The technology exists to make the service feasible, and companies like AeroMobile and OnAir already provide in-flight voice, texting, and mobile data services on Aer Lingus, Air France, Emirates, Etihad, KLM, Lufthansa, SAS, Singapore Airlines, Transaero, and Virgin Atlantic. 
  • U.S. carriers are no doubt worried that they are at risk of losing high-value business customers on international flights to their competitors because of the service.
  • Cell service on planes, if allowed would not be like getting free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. Indeed, airlines already charge for Wi-Fi, and this would be a new revenue stream too hard to resist. In fact, those of us who fly frequently and have seen the airlines charge for everything from baggage to meals have trepidations that pay toilets and a fresh air breathing charge can’t be far in the future given how lucrative they could be.

In case you missed it, below is what Chairman Wheeler had to say.  In a statement he said he has, "Circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband. Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

The proposal is on the agenda for the commission's next meeting on December 12, and after the other commissioners have a chance to review it there will be a period of public comment before a vote is taken.  That should be a lot of fun, based on the ruckus already created.

As has been widely reported, The Wall Street Journal discussed this with the FCC and reported that, "While phone use would still be restricted during takeoff and landing, the proposal would lift an FCC ban on airborne calls and cellular data use by passengers once a flight reaches 10,000 feet."

It should also be noted that this is not the first time the FCC has ventured into the area of in-flight calls made on something other than those old clunky phones that used to be parked in seat backs and cost a small fortune to use, and which thankfully have disappeared.  A similar proposal was advanced in 2007 but got nowhere.  However, that was prior to the advancement in technology that can enable us to use our personal devices rather than those of the airlines.  Plus, the economics no doubt have made the cost of provisioning such services are lot less expensive and thus would encourage use. In a word, YIKES!

Let’s cut to the chase. The facts are that when we are in-flight describing the accommodations as cozy, with the exception of the front of the plane, would be a gross understatement. The only thing that saves our tranquility, and I would say sanity, are headsets.  At least we do not have to listen to what our neighbors are watching or listening to on their personal devices or the screens used by airlines to provide entertainment. They even are a way to avoid listening to fellow passengers and avoid contact.

However, there is another saying in the tech world that, “Voice is different.”  Yes it is. If I am not wearing a good noise cancelling headset I am going to hear your business, be it personal or professional. That is way too much information. Worse, have you noticed that people tend to talk much louder on cellphones than in natural conversation?  Given the background noise of an airplane, there is no doubt that screaming would become the norm.

I don’t know about you but the very popular episode of the old hit sitcom Seinfeld called, “The Serenity Now” springs to mind.

You might ask who other than the airlines might think this a great. Off the top of my head I can think of consultants, lawyers and anyone else who bills clients by the micro-minute. Being able to call from the air will validate just how hard they are working.  They happen to be prime targets of the service as well unless pricing is so attractive anyone will want to partake of it. 

A few comments I have already seen on the subject are worthy of note.  There has already been speculation about a potential Solomon-like approach where there would be a talking section of the plane. I am sure the airlines think this is not so bad since it would provide them another way to extract extra fees and better “farm” the seats. Whoopee! 

The one I liked the best was someone who tweeted that they would rather sit next to a screaming child than listen to someone yakking on their phone.  I happen to agree.

It will be interesting to see where the flight attendants come out on this.  It is hard to imagine that they think arbitrating disputes between passengers seeking serenity and those wishing to gab is a wonderful addition to their duties. The prospect of being on one of the frequent red-eye flights I tend to take where getting some sleep is a priority and having the person next to me talking up a storm is going to become a recurring nightmare.  We live in an always on world, and why not give that pal in China a ring?

I like the fact that I am unreachable while in-flight. It is one of the few times, if I am not sleeping, to reflect on personal and business items without feeling an obligation for instant reaction.  While I understand the incredible allure/addition many have of being always connected, one can only hope/pray this idea does not fly. SERENITY NOW!

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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