Inflight mobile phone decision could be an FCC bellwether

20 September 2014 by Steve Blum
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Terrorists coordinating attacks, planes forced to land because of fights among passengers, airline staff pummelled as they try to keep order in economy class. The latest Liam Neeson thriller perhaps? Or maybe a United Airlines customer service training video?

Nope, that’s the future of U.S. air travel if the FCC decides there’s no technical reason to ban inflight mobile phone calls. At least if you believe some of the more than fourteen hundred public comments on the matter. The warning from an airline pilots’ union is typical…

Passenger use of cell phones for conversations during flight could result in flight attendants being required to have adversarial interactions with passengers to resolve avoidable arguments and/or disputes. The overall cabin atmosphere may more frequently deteriorate to unacceptable levels, perhaps even to the point of adversely affecting and even jeopardizing the safety of all occupants. The flight crew’s involvement may also be required if a diversion is necessitated due to unruly passenger behavior.

Recent scuffles over knee room show that concern about deteriorating passenger behavior standards has a basis in fact. But that’s not the FCC’s problem. Its job is to look at available technology and the latest science and decide if installing microcells on airplanes is technically safe and feasible. The overwhelming evidence, including extensive real world experience on international flights, is that outfitting airliners for mobile telecoms service presents no technical worries.

The real problem is behavioral. If domestic U.S. passengers can’t show the same discretion and consideration as international travellers, then mobile phones will add a layer of agony to existing airline misery.

But that’s not – and shouldn’t be – the FCC’s problem. It’s up to the airlines themselves and, if necessary, to the branches of government that already have the job of regulating air travel.

It’ll be interesting to watch what happens, though. There’s populist and political pressure being brought to bear on the FCC, including a chain letter started by a couple of congressmen and endorsed by a long list of trade unions – a micro version of the storm generated by the net neutrality debate. When it comes, the decision on inflight mobile phones could offer a clue to the FCC’s frame of mind: will it produce an objective, technically determined decision, or will it go large in an attempt to appeal to the masses and placate political paymasters?