International passengers make voice calls on planes, politely

9 January 2014 by Steve Blum
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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”.