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Group Makes Push for In-Flight Calling

Sun, 12/13/2009 - 11:33am
Maisie Ramsay

It’s been the subject of debate for years, but now a group sponsored by two in-flight cell phone companies is pushing the United States to allow the use of mobile devices on airplanes.

The Inflight Passenger Communications Coalition (IPCC) argues that it’s about time the U.S. caught up with the rest of the world. After all, in-flight calls have been permitted since 2007 in Europe, Asia, Australia and the Middle East.

The U.S. doesn’t seem to be overly enthused about the idea. The government has repeatedly renewed the FCC’s ban on in-flight calls and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA remains vehemently opposed to the idea, saying it would have a “catastrophic effect on aviation safety and security,” not to mention the possibility of irritating fellow passengers. 

Don’t make such harsh assumptions, says the IPCC. European regulators are reassured of the technology’s safety, and airlines that have launched in-flight cell phone service say they haven’t had any complaints.

The reasons have to do with the logistics of in-flight calls. As it turns out, placing a call from an airplane costs about $5 per minute. As a result, the average call time is about two minutes. Proponents of the technology also claim that the ambient noise in a plane’s cabin drowns out conversations.

Furthermore, the picocell technology that enables in-flight calls is limited to about six connections at a time, so there’s no chance you’ll end up in a plane full of Chatty Kathy’s.

European Union regulators aren’t concerned about signal interference from cell phones. On-flight calls are handled over a picocell network that can be switched on or off by pilots. Calls are blocked during takeoff, landing and turbulence.

For its part, the U.S. wireless industry’s major trade association says a study is needed to determine whether there is a demand by consumers. “Ultimately, we believe that customers should make the decision on whether they want to use their wireless device while traveling on airplanes,” says Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at CTIA.

“Many airplanes have been equipped with mobile phones for decades, and we believe the use of today’s more personal wireless technology should be thoroughly explored,” Carpenter says. “We appreciate the concerns some might have, but those can be addressed through a careful and deliberate examination of in-flight demand and how such service might be offered."

So far, the IPCC has failed to appeal to the FCC, Congress and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. The FCC remains concerned about possible interference from cell phones. The AFA-CWA maintains that in-flight calls are both annoying and a security risk.

Congress voted in April 2008 to continue the FAA’s current ban on in-flight cell phone use. Not surprisingly, the move was applauded by the AFA-CWA, which had lobbied for a continuation of the ban.

The IPCC is hoping that the FAA’s reauthorization bill working its way through the House and Senate will omit a provision explicitly banning the use of cell phones on planes.

The group’s primary partners, OnAir and AeroMobile, have been joined by the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, the former Assistant Secretary for Policy, Department of Homeland Security, and two airlines based in the Middle East. It’s a healthy lineup of experts, but probably not enough to assuage the vehement dislike the AFA-CWA has for the idea.

The final word on whether the U.S. ban on in-flight calls won’t come until sometime in the first half of 2010.  The Senate has a bill without a ban; the House’s bill does have a ban. Which version gets voted through won’t be clear for some time.

The IPCC is hoping to make in-flight calls a regulatory issue, not a legislative issue. They want to get it out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of regulators. Unions are against them, legislators have historically been against them and the U.S. airline industry doesn’t seem overly enthused about the idea.

For now, it looks like much of the U.S. is fairly content to stay behind the rest of the world on this one.

 

 

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