International passengers make voice calls on planes, politely


Can’t we all just get along?

“At Delta, we’re very much promoting cellular transmission on airplanes but not voice calls”, said Kirk Thornburg, an engineering executive for the airline. Chuck Cook, his counterpart at JetBlue, agrees. “We do not support the use of cellular voice airborne, that’s customer driven”.

In fact, nearly everyone on this morning’s CES panel discussing consumer electronics on airplanes agreed that passengers should be able to use cellular data services in the air, but shouldn’t be allowed to talk on their phones. Nearly.

The one dissenting view came from the one person on the panel who actually has experience operating mobile phone systems on airlines. Ian Dawkins is the CEO of OnAir, which installs and manages pico cells and WiFi systems on international airlines, where airborne voice calls and broadband use is allowed.

“This is very normal activity outside of North America”, he said. Fears of passengers annoying each other with loud phone conversations turned out to be unfounded. He said that on a typical flight, 60% of cellular usage is for email, 30% is for texting and only 10% is for voice. Most calls, he said, are less than two minutes and are usually made just after take off or just before landing.

The systems he installs allows the crew to turn off voice service, something that’s commonly done when the lights go down and passengers are sleeping. In six years, he says he hasn’t received a single complaint.

It’s a fair question, though, whether U.S. passengers would be so civilised. Flying domestically in the U.S. is a much different experience from flying overseas or even within another country. Passengers, airline crew and ground staff in the U.S. are ever more prone to do battle on the basis of rules, orders and threats.

The eventual decision to allow voice calls or not could be made by federal regulators, or it could be left up to individual airlines. Real world experience will count, though, said the FAA’s Tim Shaver. “The fact that this has been deployed successfully internationally is going to be one of the things we look at too”.

About Steve Blum

Steve Blum is president of Tellus Venture Associates, a management, planning and business development consultancy for municipal and community broadband initiatives. He is a 30-year industry veteran and an expert in developing new broadband infrastructure and services, including wireless, fiber optic and satellite systems. His career includes playing key roles in the launch and growth of DirecTv in the U.S., as well as other satellite broadcasting platforms around the world. For the past ten years, he has helped build municipal wireless and fiber optic broadband systems. His client list includes many California cities, such as San Leandro, Palo Alto, Oakland, Los Angeles, Lompoc and Folsom. He’s a member of the executive team for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and has worked with other regional consortia in California. Steve is the author of seven books on the Internet and satellite broadcasting and is a frequent contributor to professional journals and industry events. He holds an A.B. in History from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.A. in East Asia Studies from the University of Washington, and an M.B.A. from the University of St. Thomas. He is a triathlete and multiple Ironman finisher, and is currently ranked in the top 100 of the Challenge Triathlon world rankings, out of more than 30,000 athletes.