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Cell Phones on Planes? Let's Hope Not.

Posted by Patrick Smith  December 4, 2013 08:05 PM

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So, the FCC has announced it will consider revising its position on the use of cellular phones on U.S. airline flights, potentially clearing the way for onboard calling.

The first thing everybody asks about is safety. Over the years, there has been anecdotal evidence of cellular phones interfering with cockpit equipment, but most of these reports were several years ago, involving older aircraft, and nothing could ever be proven. I don’t feel that things would be moving in this direction if the regulators didn’t feel it was safe.

Ultimately, however, this becomes a social, not a technological issue. In other words, how do passengers feel about being confined in a cabin with dozens of other people all chatting away simultaneously? The idea introduces yet another stress factor into the air travel experience—an experience that for many is stressful enough already.

It’s ironic, because to me, when I fly as a passenger, it’s often the airplane cabin that provides the quietest and most relaxing part of the journey. Airport terminals in the United States are such noisy places; the airplane itself can be a welcome relief. Sure, there's engine and wind noise, but the ambient sounds of flying aren't remotely as disturbing as the sounds of somebody sitting next to you in the throes of an overheated phone conversation. There's simply no comparison.

But what I think doesn’t matter. Like it or not, we are moving towards some form of onboard cell phone use. Once the approval goes through, it will be up to individual carriers as to when and how they’ll allow it. One idea would be sequestering those passengers who wish to use mobile phones into a certain section of aircraft—an idea akin to the old smoking/non-smoking sections that used to be common. The chatterers can stay in their own area and leave the rest of us alone. Or, perhaps you could have a designated zone of the plane that a passenger can move to in order to place a call—a sort of airborne phone booth.

Keep in mind that the proposal is just that—a proposal. For now, the phone ban remains in place, and passengers are obliged to follow the rules. Even if the ban is lifted, technological challenges remain. As it stands, cellular phones simply will not work at higher altitudes in an airplane cabin. One solution is the installation of a small cell-signal aggregator that acts as a sort of miniature cell tower right there on the plane. It then re-directs your call to the ground via radio or satellite. (It also automatically de-powers the transmission strength of your phone, further reducing the likelihood of interference with cockpit equipment.)

Thus, for onboard calling can become a reality will require an expensive, industry-wide investment in onboard technology.

Which, of course, brings us to the next conversation—about how that cost will be passed along to flyers. Will passengers be asked to pay yet another fee for a seat in the airplane’s “quiet zone?”

This debate will be contentious, but if you’ll allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute, we can hardly blame carriers for seeking out additional revenue streams with fares as inexpensive as they are. Most people fail to realize that the average airfare in 2013 is about half of what it was three decades ago—and that’s after factoring in the various add-on fees that have become so popular. The average fare has fallen 18 percent since 2000 alone, despite huge increases in the cost of jet fuel.

On the other hand, the a la carte pricing model leaves people feeling increasingly nickel-and-dimed, and every new fee cranks up the public’s anti-airline resentment that much higher.

We’ll see how it all plays out.

If you're among those who think the idea is a terrible one, you might wish add your name to THIS PETITION.


In the meantime, how about a sales pitch...

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For more information, reviews and praise, SEE HERE.

Copies, including e-book and audiobook versions, are available through Amazon, iTunes, and at bookstores everywhere. (Get over to Porter Square Books in Cambridge and insist they order more copies!)

Autographed copies can be purchased HERE.

Book with Passport.jpg

Yes, by the way, that's my actual passport in the photo (upper left) showing the visa from a short trip to Vietnam that I took a few years back, detailed with some hilarity (or so I was trying) HERE.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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