The Talk About In-Flight Cell Phone Use

December 20, 2013

in Travel Tech

  • SumoMe

In a 3-2 decision last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to solicit comments on whether it should repeal its rule banning in-flight cellphone use.

No Phone in Flight

(Get Down Flickr Photo)

But during the upcoming holiday season, that rule remains in place, and that will probably be the case for at least a few more months.

For those who to make calls or send text messages in-flight, the FCC is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

For those passengers, flight attendants, or pilots who oppose in-flight cellphone calls, the agency has delivered, ala Santa Claus, what they wanted: No endless yakking by the passenger in the next seat about stuff you didn’t want to know and could care less about, and no in-flight knock-down-drag out arguments or fisticuffs over such telephone communications.

Because the FCC action comes close on the heels of last month’s Federal Aviation Administration decision to leave the non-telephonic use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) up to the airlines, some airline passengers may feel up-in-the-air, uncertain about how they can actually use their mobile devices in-flight.

Here’s what you need to know.

No Cellular Network Phone Calls

Forget it.

You’re not calling your Mother or anyone else from any seat on the plane.

Not even in First Class.

First Class Cabin

(LAXFlyer Flickr Photo)

And you may never be able to do so.

At least over a cellular carrier’s network.

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has been quoted as saying

“I don’t want to listen to the personal conversations and the business deals of [sic] person sitting next to me on a flight.”

But the FCC is only going to consider whether there is a technological concern about in-flight cellphone use and possible interference with ground-based wireless networks, not whether there are other reasons for banning cellphone calls.

If the agency concludes today’s cellphones pose no such problem, Wheeler (and the rest of us) will have to wear noise-cancelling headphones to shut out the blather and banter from nearby passengers. [January 15, 2014 update: Per discussion between travel experts during this episode of the This Week in Travel podcast, even those headphones won’t prevent you from “forced eavesdropping” on your seatmate’s cellphone calls.]

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Transportation could ban in-flight cellphone use as being “unfair” to consumers.

And according to this story published by The Huffington Post, Congress may pass legislation on in-flight cellphone use.

Even if the FCC says its okay to make in-flight phone calls, airlines may make it a “no-no.” Per this Travel Weekly story, Delta, JetBlue and United probably won’t permit them, and American may not, either. And in a follow-up story, Travel Weekly said Southwest will not allow in-flight calls and that Virgin America probably will not, either.

The solution could be “phone booths” (Baby Boomers will remember the ground-based version) on airplanes. But according to this story in today’s Los Angeles Times, that probably won’t “fly,” either.

[December 24, 2013 update: Per this Travel Weekly story, airlines based on other countries allow in-flight cellphone voice calls.]

No Skype or Other VoIP Phone Calls

While the FAA doesn’t prohibit you from making in-flight voice or video phone calls using a VoIP (“Voice over Internet Protocol”) service like Skype or FaceTime, you still must leave your cellphone in “Airplane Mode” during flight, blocking access to cellular networks. And, at least for now, on-board WiFi systems won’t allow you to make such calls, either.

Text Messaging

For the foreseeable future, you aren’t going to be able to send text messages over cellular data networks while airborne. And that’s because despite the new FAA rule, you still have to operate your mobile device with “Airplane Mode” turned on.

However, Gogo, which provides on-board WiFi systems to many airlines, hopes to have texting capability rolled our early next year.


But Southwest Airlines, which uses a different on-board WiFi system, recently announced the availability of Apple’s iMessage system for $2/day for those who own an iPhone or iPad running the iOS5 or later versions of Apple’s mobile operating system  and it plans to offer text messaging for Android devices early next year.

Mobile Device “Cruising Altitude”

Just because the FAA no longer prohibits the use of portable electronic devices below an altitude of 10,000 feet, doesn’t mean that you can actually do so.

(Gogo Photo)

Southwest Airlines, whose aircraft are equipped with satellite-based WiFi systems, appears to be the only carrier that offers “gate-to-gate” WiFi use.

If you are on a plane using a Gogo system, you’ll still have to wait until it reaches that 10,000 foot mark before WiFi becomes available.

Each airline must certify to the FAA that portable electronic devices can be safely used during all phases for flight for each type of plane it operates. And an airline can adopt its own policy limiting the use of such devices, even though the FAA rules would not impose any such limits.

Keeping Entertained

Southwest aircraft don’t have on-board entertainment systems with seat-back screens found on planes operated by other airlines. Instead, it offers movies, TV, and news programming sent to a passenger’s own mobile device.

Look for other airlines to follow Southwest’s lead. But don’t expect to be able to stream movies from services like Netflix during your flight; that would take more bandwidth than on-board WiFi systems have available at this time.

Of course, if you’ve downloaded videos to your smartphone or tablet, you don’t need an Internet connection to play them during flight.

Sit Back and Enjoy The Flight

If you’ll be flying over the wood and trees to get to Grandma’s house, or somewhere else, during the holidays, bad weather and busted planes could delay or cancel your trip.

But at least for now, thanks to the still-in-place ban on in-flight cellphone calls, the not-always-friendly-skies will be relatively quiet.

That is, unless an on-board a pillow fight breaks out.

Who says flying can’t be fun these days, even if you can’t talk to your friends on the ground while you sit back and enjoy the flight?

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