IN-FLIGHT CALLING BOGEY MAN
By Joe Brancatelli
December 5, 2013 --You're wrong, business travelers. If you truly value the productivity of your in-flight time, you do want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to lift its ban against in-flight calls using mobile devices.
As you already know thanks to an orgy of (mostly) incomplete news-media coverage and (mostly) stale late-night talk-show jokes, the FCC is moving with bureaucratic alacrity to rescind its 1991 prohibition on in-flight calls. The matter could be clarified next week when a report that recommends lifting the ban is presented to FCC Commissioners.
If the communications czars approve, the issue will be opened for public comment. That will undoubtedly unleash a new round of outrage and vituperation from travelers convinced that their next flight will be spent in a middle seat between a smarmy salesman and a Valley Girl who talks like Ke$ha.
The sentiment against in-flight calling has already spawned a petition at WhiteHouse.gov. The nation's flight attendants are already lighting torches and sharpening pitch forks. And even FCC chairman Tom Wheeler acknowledges the opposition. "We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes. I feel that way myself," he says.
So why is the FCC approaching the noisy nest of passenger unrest and set itself on a course in clear opposition to the will of the people? Because it's the right thing to do, both from the tech and travel perspectives. And if people actually understood the stakes, they'd cool the rhetoric and realize that they want the FCC out of the equation as soon as possible.
Data, not voice
For starters, you need to understand that this is really about cellular data, not voice calling. Raising the specter of planeloads of Chatty Cathys is a red herring. While people may be opposed to voice calls, they do want the ability to get in-flight cellular access — in other words, texts, Email, apps and Internet — via their mobile devices. As you surely know, even the FAA's decision last month to allow the use of in-flight personal electronic devices didn't allow us to take our phones out of "airplane mode." And as long as the FCC maintains a ban on in-flight cell calls, we can't get in-flight cellular data, either. The FCC is moving now, after more than two decades of opposition, because people really do want to use their phones in-flight for all sorts of other things that have nothing to do with phoning home.
Airlines, not agencies
Assuming the FCC extinguishes its in-flight cellphone ban, all it does is remove the agency itself from the discussion. You wouldn't automatically be able to take your phone out of airplane mode. After the FCC exited stage left, the power to allow in-flight phone use would rest with individual airlines. And it's pretty clear that airlines aren't likely to rush to allow in-flight calling. After all, ever since U.S. carriers began installing WiFi on planes in 2008, the ability to use Skype and other so-called VOIP services has existed. But airlines of their own volition block VOIP calling. Should they permit you to use your cellular service in the month ahead, they'll surely be circumspect about voice calls. In fact, Delta Air Lines is already on record saying they wouldn't be permitted on its aircraft.
Reality, not perception
All this misdirected rage over in-flight calls also flies in the face of travel reality. We already have in-flight calling via at-seat satellite phones on most international flights operating to and from the United States. And guess what? Virtually no one uses them. I spoke to a dozen international carriers in the last week and most said usage rates were so low that it wasn't even something they routinely tracked. At least one told me his airline had stopped installing satellite phones on its newest aircraft because passenger demand didn't justify the equipment cost. Besides, not all countries still bar in-flight cellphone use. And guess what? Hardly anyone over there is using their cellphones to make in-flight calls, either. A Federal Aviation Administration study released last year said in-flight calling rates ranged from about 2 percent (in France) to 0.3 passengers per flight segment (Brazil). The average length of a call: less than two minutes.
History, not hysteria
Business fliers who have been around long enough recall that there was a time when most domestic flights were equipped with air-to-ground telephones. And guess what? Nobody used them. After fighting for decades to get the service on planes, Airfone founder John Goeken eventually had to sell it to GTE. Verizon, which inherited Airfone, folded the service in 2006. In the final years, as few as two passengers per flight were making calls. AT&T was also briefly in the in-flight phone business. It dropped its product, Air One, in 2002.
Fees, not fantasy
A cynical traveler would say none of this would actually stop a committed caller from sitting down next to them and babbling obnoxiously in a loud voice through an entire flight. And I grant that point. But consider: Why did Airfone and Air One fail? Why is Gogo, which has wired more than 2,000 domestic aircraft with in-flight WiFi, attracting fewer than 6 percent of the passengers who could be logging on during a particular flight. I would suggest that high fees killed Airfone and Air One and is retarding the growth of Gogo. If airlines perceived there was a market for in-flight phone calls, do you think they'd price the service reasonably? Of course not. They'd overcharge and drive us sane people away. And even the Ke$ha wannabes and smarmy salesman would probably have enough sense not to overpay.
Finally, one more bit of reality: Although hard data is exceedingly difficult to come by, every study and survey I've seen lately says that the number of voice calls we make is plummeting. That's been true for at least the last decade in Europe and the last five years in the United States.
So the obvious takeaway: If people aren't calling on the ground anymore, what makes you think they'll start calling on an aircraft if they're allowed to do so?