Americans don’t agree about many things – but cell phone use on aircraft may be an exception.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering a proposal that would require airlines to notify passengers if they allow the use of mobile wireless devices, such as smartphones, to make telephone calls and send messages while on board their flights. It is also seeking comments on whether to prohibit airlines from allowing voice calls on such devices.
You have until Feb. 13 to leave your comment.
In its current proposal, the DOT notes that
Under the proposed rule, airlines remain free to respond to those concerns by banning voice calls as a matter of policy, allowing voice calls only on certain flights (such as those frequently used by business travelers) or only during certain portions of flights (such as non-sleeping hours), creating “voice call free zones” where voice calls are not permitted, or through other means. As we explain further below, permitting carriers to allow voice calls onboard aircraft may create an environment that is both unfair and deceptive to consumers, and inconsistent with adequate air transportation. …
As noted above, the Department is unaware of any U.S. carrier that permits voice calls on its flights; moreover, foreign carriers disable voice call capability within U.S. airspace. Thus, at present, consumers purchase tickets with the reasonable expectation that voice calls will not be permitted on flights within the United States. Given the overwhelmingly negative tenor of the public comments submitted to the docket, it is reasonable to conclude that consumers may choose a flight based at least in part on whether the carrier has taken the unusual step of permitting voice calls on that flight. Under these circumstances, we conclude that consumers would be unfairly surprised if they learned for the first time, after purchasing the ticket, that their chosen flight permits voice calls.
The DOT also agreed with a suggestion that “the Department has the authority to require carriers to disclose their voice-call policies, if the airline does allow them.”
According to the agency,
In February 2014, the DOT sought comment on whether permitting voice calls on aircraft constitutes an unfair practice to consumers and/or is inconsistent with adequate air transportation, and if so, whether such calls should be banned. More specifically, it solicited comment on a number of questions, including, but not limited to: (1) Whether the Department should refrain from rulemaking and allow the airlines to develop their own policies; (2) whether a voice call ban should apply to all mobile wireless devices; (3) whether any proposed ban on voice calls should be extended to foreign air carriers; and (4) whether exceptions should apply for emergencies, certain areas of the aircraft, certain types of flights, or certain individuals (such as flight attendants and air marshals). It did not seek comment on the technical or safety aspects of voice calls, because those fall under the regulatory authority of the FCC and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], respectively.
Out of over 1,700 comments from individuals in 2014, 96 percent favored a ban on voice calls, as did pilot and flight attendant unions and the consumer advocacy organizations Consumers Union and the Global Business Travel Association, which noted that limiting the use of mobile phones to “quiet sections” is not feasible on commercial aircraft. Some business travelers, however, have advocated for the ability to make “listen-only” calls, such as lengthy conference calls, and 2 percent did not support a ban on voice calls.
The DOT noted that “[most] commenters used strong language to express the view that voice calls in the presence of others are disturbing in general, and even more so in a confined space. Individuals also commented that voice calls would create “air rage” incidents by disgruntled passengers, place additional strains on flight attendants, and intrude upon privacy and opportunities to sleep.”
Several airlines and airline organizations, such as Spirit Airlines, Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association, on the other hand, argued for allowing airlines to develop their own policies and letting the “free market” determine whether mobile phone use for voice calls should be allowed on airplanes.
Some foreign airlines and suppliers of wireless mobile communications equipment commented that on foreign flights, mobile phone use has been increasingly allowed, with few complaints. They noted that on those flights, voice calls are rarely placed and are of short duration, can be disabled by the pilots, and that crewmembers are “adequately trained to handle any incidents that may arise as a result of voice calls.”
The DOT also indicated that “Our review of the individual comments … suggests, however, that U.S. consumers have come to expect a voice-call-free cabin environment and that they may generally hold a different view from foreign consumers on the issue of voice calls.”
But the current proposal makes clear that although the DOT is seeking comment from the public on whether or not to ban voice calls, it has no plans to actually implement such a ban. The proposal itself is limited to requiring airlines to adequately disclose their own rules regarding the use of mobile wireless devices on their flights.
A requirement for adequate disclosure of such rules certainly seems fair from a consumer advocacy perspective. After all, as the DOT notes, Americans are used to phone-free commercial airlines, so if the airlines are allowed to permit the use of mobile phones on board their flights, it’s reasonable that passengers would want to know that before booking tickets.
Then again, prohibiting the use of mobile devices altogether on commercial flights seems reasonable too. Nobody wants to be surrounded by hundreds of passengers all shouting into cell phones in an enclosed space. Or do they?