Guest Article: Why Telephone Calls Should Be Permitted Aboard Airplanes During Flights

After almost two decades of grappling with the decision to allow passengers to place telephone calls using their portable electronic devices and mobile telephones, the Federal Communications Commission of the United States on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 decided to abandon proposing to revise its rules in governing mobile communications services aboard airborne aircraft — which would have permitted inflight voice services and data services via mobile wireless frequencies, subject to certain conditions.

Although guest articles are rarely posted at The Gate, Barry Graham — who is a reader of The Gate — wrote an article which was originally posted at the official Internet web site of Christopher Elliott a couple of years ago; and both he and Barry Graham have granted express permission for the revised and updated article to be posted here at The Gate as a rebuttal to the aforementioned article.

Without further ado, here is the rebuttal from Barry Graham.

Guest Article: Why Telephone Calls Should Be Permitted Aboard Airplanes During Flights

Virgin Atlantic Airways

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

As we read recently in this column, the use of mobile wireless devices, such as smartphones, to make telephone calls and to send messages while in the air, looks like it’s not going to be allowed for a while.

DOT says that 96 percent of travelers were against voice calls on planes while flying when it sought opinions in 2014.

“Our review of the individual comments,” it notes, “suggests that U.S. consumers have come to expect a voice-call-free cabin environment and that they may generally hold a different view from foreign consumers on the issue of voice calls.”

Making voice calls doesn’t mean that you may take your phone out of airplane mode and connect to your nearest tower. Apart from the fact that it’s unlikely you would find a tower in range, this use of cellphones is already illegal. What is possible is the use of onboard Wi-Fi to make voice calls over the internet (VOIP).

Foreign airlines that allow VOIP calls report that customers are happy to have this ability when needed and few complaints have been generated as a result. I myself have used WhatsApp to make calls on airlines that do allow this (such as Virgin Atlantic) and nobody complained because nobody else on the plane could hear me.

It is interesting that DOT claims that so many people are against VOIP calls while flying because I flew extensively when calls were possible using handsets that were provided by the airlines and I never heard any complaints. I also haven’t observed objections when people use their cellphones after landing. Reviewing the comments in a Boston Globe article shows that public opinion may not be overwhelmingly against calls in the sky after all.

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) has made it clear it does not want calls allowed on board, and what the DOT doesn’t disclose is how many of the comments received resulted from the AFA’s lobbying efforts among its members. The AFA also lobbied elected officials to include a ban in the FAA Reauthorization bill of last year that eventually passed and caused Wifi calling to be banned.

Thus, the existence of many negative comments, some of which may not be from consumers, proves nothing about whether the majority of flyers want the government or the airlines to decide whether or not they should speak on their phones while in the air.

Delta has stated that should VOIP calls ever be allowed, they would ban them. I have flown a lot with this airline. Not once have I ever been asked for my opinion about this matter even though they send me a survey after most flights. Could it be that they have made this decision based on the fears of their employees? I challenge all airlines to seek opinions of its most frequent flyers.

Don’t get me wrong. Disclosure might not be all bad. It would enable airlines to distinguish themselves for the benefit of those who do want the service. There are many opportunities that this could bring, and there could be separate seats for those that do or don’t want it. Uses include:

  • Texting (which is already possible with some carriers onboard).
  • Listening to conference calls
  • Passing on important information (that is too long or sensitive for an e-mail or text message) to people who will be affected by a flight delay
  • Letting the authorities know if G-d forbid there was a terrorist incident that took out the crew
Delta Air Lines Reykjavik

Photograph ©2018 by Brian Cohen.

It’s true that people speaking loudly on a phone is annoying. It’s also annoying when fellow passengers speak extremely loudly to each other. In fact there are many things people do that we can choose to find annoying if we want to. A phone is not needed to be obnoxious. Most people are considerate of others. As people have become used to cellphones, their voices have become quieter. When I speak on a cellphone I speak more quietly than I do otherwise, and people around me can hardly hear me.

In general it’s not easy to hear other people speaking on a plane. During a previous flight I was chatting with a fellow passenger next to me (a famous politician) and I could hardly hear him because of the background noise of the plane. So I believe it’s likely people would not be distracted by phones nor that people would have lengthy phone calls, because of the aircraft noise.

Although it could be seen as a reason to select an airline rather than to avoid it, it’s interesting that the DOT is so concerned about this issue that it thinks people should be “warned.” Several years ago, airlines stopped offering meals on many flights. Some airlines even went as far as terminating special meal services, even on flights where they do offer meals. Why is the DOT so concerned about noise, yet not concerned about people flying up to six hours without a meal — especially those people with special dietary needs? Why has the DOT never suggested that airlines disclose the lack of special meal service when a passenger books a flight with meal service?

Do you really want the government to regulate your personal behavior on an airplane? This is even more relevant now as we look forward to a time when masks will be behind us instead of in front of us on our faces. Do you want the Government to mandate the wearing of masks and then have to wait for them to reverse the ruling, possibly long after the emergency is over? The decision should be made by the airlines as it is now, so that it can be amended in real time.

Regulating mobile phone use is as obtrusive as making someone turn off a PC because a neighboring passenger is especially sensitive to light, when they could simply ask them to turn down the brightness. Should it be a crime to pass wind while in the cabin? People don’t need a law to know how to behave toward others.

Let us know if you don’t want regulations governing decent behavior to others and you want to be able to benefit from technology in a way that is allowed by so many other countries.

Should voice calls be allowed aboard an airplane provided that they are conducted in a way which does not annoy others?

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Photograph ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

Barry Graham is a fan of The Gate and has been a road warrior for greater than 30 years. He is married with six children and is an active volunteer for several causes including for his community and for consumer advocacy. For his day job he sells computer systems and is looking forward to the time that he can do that face to face again. He is originally from the United Kingdom and has been living in the United States for nearly half his life.

When I give an opinion in an article — even when I am adamant about a point of view pertaining to a topic — I try to keep an open mind when opposing views are presented to me, as that is one way in which I continue to learn. After reading the argument posted by Barry, I am now open to perhaps allowing passengers aboard airplanes to use electronic voice communications for a trial period to see if it actually works and whether the concerns of those who are opposed to it are verified.

Other articles at The Gate which pertain to telephone calls aboard airplanes include:

All photographs ©2015, ©2017, ©2018, and ©2019 by Brian Cohen.

17 thoughts on “Guest Article: Why Telephone Calls Should Be Permitted Aboard Airplanes During Flights”

  1. John sousa says:

    This is nuts….I do not want to listen/hear multiple phone conversations while I am either trying to work, concentrate on work or grab a quick nap. Nothing is that imp[ortyamt that it can’t wai an hour or 6 until you land….
    the plane is a good place to get away; and there is always text and email if it is important.

    1. Jacob says:

      I 100% agree with John Sousa. I have always looked forward to my flights as a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of daily activities. There is NOTHING wrong with just relaxing on a plane and resuming all communication activities once we land. I remember how in the past I always looked forward to my 13 hour transpacific flights (even though it was in economy class) because absolutely no one could reach me while I was flying and I was able to totally relax and decompress.

  2. DaninMCI says:

    I’m sure pissing people off with some random un-needed speakerphone call like you’re cruising Walmart would never go bad on a plane. Oh, and I have little respect for anything that comes out of Mr. Elliott’s blog over the years.

    1. Barry Graham says:

      Nobody mentioned speakerphones and I wrote the article, not Chris, who helps so many people in so many ways. I always find it so much more enjoyable to say nice things about people and their work.

  3. TimJ says:

    First class rail, LA to San Diego, a woman loudly and idly chatted the whole trip. That’s what this will be like. So, yes, keep the ban.

    Oh, and yes, let the government regulate it. Yes, regulate masks for longer than the average American would prefer because the average American isn’t a public health professional.

  4. NB_ga says:

    Kudos, Barry!

    I agree wholeheartedly. I cannot fathom why people get so wrapped up in what other people are doing, in general.

    If talking amongst passengers is allowed in a plane, how would allowing voice calls be upsetting?! This way the fellow passengers only have to listen to one side of the conversation.

    Maybe if we all just back down and stop worrying about what everyone else does – we would all be happier and more content. @Barry, thanks for offering your well-written point of view.

    1. Jason L. says:

      “If talking amongst passengers is allowed in a plane…”. Large numbers of people travel by themselves = way more of them would be talking since they have nothing else to do.
      What I have seen over the years is that the more people are talking in a room, the louder it gets. It’s not the one polite person talking that is the issue, it is all the loud talkers combined that is the issue.

      “only have to listen to one side of the conversation.” What a moronic statement. The issue is not about hearing one side of the conversation, the issue is the noise. Sure we could wear noise-canceling headphones, but it would be better if we did not have to.

      “…if we all just back down and stop worrying about what everyone else does”. This has nothing to do with worry about what everyone else does. It has to do with the noise bothering other passengers. The person can text or email to their heart’s content and no one would be bothered.

      1. NB_ga says:

        I do not recall observing anyone ever asking someone not to talk on a phone in public. Not in a restaurant, in a mall, at a park, absolutely no where. Why is everyone so against it on a plane? I just do not see the issue.
        FTR, I generally dislike phone calls and cannot see wanting to make one on a plane. But I truly do not see how it is any more bothersome than any other situation. I carry ear buds most everywhere and just tuck myself out of earshot in most situations. That always seems to be the better solution than asking someone else to stop doing something.

        1. Mike says:

          Plane is a huge difference from all of the other public places you mentioned. Parks you can easily walk away, restaurants and malls are busy places and it’s expected people will be loud. In a plane your rubbing elbow with people, most want to sleep who wants to hear someone having a conversation 1 foot from your ear? I’m bother when people need to use the bathroom not to mention having a loud conversation on the phone. I would compare a plane more to a movie theater just places you don’t expect to have people making a ton of noise.

        2. Barry Graham says:

          Thank you, I always find your comments to be so kind and helpful.

          1. Barry Graham says:

            That’s addressed to NB_ga by the way.

  5. tda1986 says:

    “People don’t need a law to know how to behave toward others.”

    That’s why voluntary mask policies work so well. Oh, wait…

    1. Barry Graham says:

      As far as I know there aren’t any voluntary mask policies. If they were voluntary it wouldn’t be a concern if people didn’t wear them. That aside, aasks and phones are completely different. Masking policy is put in place to stop people from dying or getting physically ill, Ch’V.

  6. RodPCV says:

    You forgot to add a few drinks to this, and now it’s an endless phone call to everyone on his or her contact list. Add a few LOUD laughter as well.

  7. Mike says:

    I actually never knew it was not allowed. Many planes even have built in phone that you swipe you credit card to make calls. I have only made 1 call while in flight but using headphones and talking quietly. I agree it should not be allowed because to many would abuse it like everything else.

    1. Barry Graham says:

      It’s allowed on Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, people don’t abuse it.

  8. Barry Graham says:

    Thank you Brian for publishing this and thank you everyone for your comments, regardless of whether we agree.

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