ROGERS: Say hello to high-flying cellphones

Foreign airlines prove there’s nothing to fear but loud, rude passengers

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There has been concern about the federal government’s recent move to allow the use of cellphones during airline flights, in particular for voice calls. Though the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission have said there are no safety or technical barriers, the Department of Transportation is considering putting the brakes on deploying this proven technology because some passengers fear they will be trapped next to, and having to listen in on, fellow fliers who spend hours chatting away.

At AeroMobile, we’ve been operating cellphone services on flights across Europe, Asia and the Middle East for almost six years, and our experience shows there is no basis for these concerns.

Most of the airlines that use our technology do offer passengers the ability to use voice service and talk on their phones during flight. However, several have chosen not to offer voice. This was a decision made by the airline based on its assessment of passenger sentiment — a decision made without the need for legislative or regulatory intervention.

Airlines aren’t the only ones who self-regulate. Passengers do, too. On airlines that do operate voice service, our research has shown that calls in-flight typically last around two minutes. Of those calls, we suspect many people are using the service to pick up voicemails, which does not involve conversation. In addition, use of voice on night flights is much lower than on the equivalent day flights.

The vast majority of time passengers spend on a cellphone in-flight is spent browsing and texting. In fact, 80 percent of users only use text and data.

Self-limiting behavior isn’t the only curb on chatty passengers. Current technology only allows a limited number of calls to take place simultaneously, so a cabin full of passengers talking on their cellphones is not realistic. What’s more, cabin crews have full control of the connectivity options available on the flight, so they can simply turn the system off, should the need ever arise.

Even after regulatory authorities allow phones for use on aircraft, those planes will need specialized equipment installed to do so. The rolling out of this equipment inherently takes time and a positive investment decision by the airline. Therefore, the vast majority of aircraft will not be offering the use of cellphones for all services, including voice, for years to come.

When it does reach U.S. carriers, we don’t expect disruptions to break out in air cabins. After flying for thousands of hours with in-flight cell service, we simply haven’t seen the outcomes many Americans fear. This lack of disruption has been confirmed by the United States’ own regulators. In July 2012, the FAA released a report that analyzed the experience of non-U.S. carriers that allowed voice-enabled cellphones to be used on board. The FAA surveyed a dozen non-U.S. civil aviation authorities. Those authorities reported no incidents of passenger disruption stemming from voice services. In fact, one authority noted complaints when the service was not available.

In fact, U.S. passengers are already using the service. With increasing numbers of connected flights heading to U.S. airports on carriers including Virgin Atlantic, Aer Lingus, British Airways, Lufthansa and Etihad, nearly 20 percent of travelers are accessing the service from U.S. cellphone operators, including AT&T and T-Mobile.

The Department of Transportation is now considering a total ban on voice-enabled flights. However, a ban is not necessary. There is no technical or safety reason why voice-enabling technology should be disallowed on planes. The only reason to ban any service is a fear that has been proven to be unfounded.

When it comes to using cellphones on airlines for voice calls, U.S. airlines should have the same choices available to them as the airlines in the rest of the world. Civil air authorities in other countries have long known that operating cellphones with our equipment is safe, and have given airlines the choice to offer services as they see fit. The Department of Transportation shouldn’t get in the way of that choice.

Kevin Rogers is the CEO of AeroMobile, a company that provides in-flight wireless connectivity outside the United States.

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