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January 07, 2014

Will Allowing In-Flight Mobile Device Use Dramatically Change the Flying Experience?

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent proposal to allow air passengers to use their mobile devices during flights has received anything but the usual ho-hum response. What initially appeared to be a change that would give more freedom to passengers has led to pushback from many who think the changes would make flights unbearable. 

In December, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated that “new technology removes the technical justification of this rule,” referring to the prohibition of in-flight mobile device use that has been in effect since 1991. Wheeler stressed that the FCC’s role is purely technical and that the agency wants to leave the decision of cell phone use policies up to the airlines to decide for themselves.

According to the Washington Post, thousands of consumers contacted the FCC and several petitions on the White Houses in opposition to the new policy. The prevailing opinion seems to be that most are okay with allowing mobile device usage as long as it does not extend to allowing phone calls.

A poll conducted by GO Group LLC, a ground transportation service, shows that older travelers differ significantly from younger travelers on the issue of allowing mobile devices to be used during flights. Almost four-fifths of travelers over the age of 30 oppose in-flight cell phone use, while 52 percent of travelers ages 18-30 support it. Most comments given by older travelers seem to echo the findings of the Washington Post: they are open to allowing mobile device use if it does not include talking.

Two airline executives have come out in opposition to allowing phone calls on flights. Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson sent a memo to employees stating that the airline would not allow cell or VoIP calls to be made on its flights once the mobile device ban is lifted. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly stated the airline would do the same, claiming that 60 percent of customers polled oppose in-flight phone calls.

So, it appears that while travelers will indeed be able to use their mobile devices in-flight, they simply won’t be able to make voice calls. How the airline industry arrives at that result remains to be seen. It probably won’t come from the FCC, which seems uncomfortable to be more than a technical advisor. As a result, the U.S. Department of Transportation may make a rule instead.

Both chambers of Congress have considered laws, but criminalizing cell phone calls on flights is a heavy-handed approach to dealing with the problem that seems to be taking care of itself. The best plan is for the airline industry to follow the lead of Delta and Southwest and to enact policies their customers want. 

Edited by Blaise McNamee

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