Debate Over Cell Phone Use On Planes Heats Up

Even as U.S. airlines begin to install Wi-Fi on planes, legislation to outlaw cell phone calls on flights has been introduced.

William Gardner

April 7, 2009

3 Min Read
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Why is the use of cell phones on flights viewed as a dangerous nuisance in the United States but as a godsend in the rest of the world?

With most U.S. airlines beginning to install in-flight Wi-Fi service -- but with VoIP calling blocked -- the issue is entering a new zone of debate. Cell phone use on flights is hailed in a report by European provider OnAir, which observes passengers can access its Mobile OnAir service on more than 6,000 flights a month in 36 countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

At the same time, legislation designed to permanently outlaw cell phone calls in flights in the United States has been introduced in Congress.

"The public doesn't want to be subjected to people talking on their cell phones on an already over-packed airplane," U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., states on his Web site. "However, with Internet access just around the corner on U.S. flights, it won't be long before the ban on voice communications on in-flight planes is lifted. Our bill, the HANG UP Act, would ensure that financially strapped airlines don't drive us towards this noisome disruption in search of further revenue." DeFazio, who has spearheaded the anti-cell phone use campaign in Congress, has been joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate.

But in a real-world experience of more than 100,000 flights OnAir and its competitor, AeroMobile, found that the typical cell phone call was less than two minutes, according to Carl Biersack of the pro-cell phone Inflight Passenger Communications Coalition.

"The duration of calls -- actual experience in the overseas markets -- is under two minutes per call," Biersack said in an e-mail Tuesday. "This real-world experience undercuts the hypothetical assertion that a passenger would be forced to sit next to a person talking on a cell phone for the entire flight." Biersack added that there is no evidence cell phone calling on flights interferes with aircraft navigation or electronics equipment on aircraft. Airliner crews activate the cell phone gear after flights reach cruising altitude.

"Thousands and thousands of in-flight passengers have availed themselves of the [OnAir and AeroMobile] service," said Biersack. "For some it was a business call that needed to be done. For some it was a family emergency that needed to be addressed. For some it was altering their transportation logistics after the pilot announced a fight delay while in-flight."

DeFazio noted that "in-flight voice use of cell phones is overwhelmingly opposed by consumers." He cited a poll sponsored by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA in which 63% of the respondents said they opposed the use of cell phones in flights. In addition, the National Consumers League opposed it while just 21% of people favored removing restrictions on using cell phones in flight in the poll.

"Aside from the obvious courtesy issues, flight attendants have safety concerns with in-flight voice communication," DeFazio said. "If voice communication is permitted, passengers are likely to not pay attention to safety announcements and flight attendants could be forced to referee disputes resulting from loud conversations."

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on the use of business software on smartphones. Download the report here (registration required).

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