Mobile Phones Should be Allowed on Airplanes

Inflight Entertainment

After talking to Emirates last year about onboard mobile phone use, I said that I was “less averse” to the idea. Now I’ve moved even further. I’ve decided to take a stand. Mobile phones should be allowed on airplanes. I know, you hate the idea, right? But there’s a lot of good that can come out of it, and I think that outweighs the bad.

Cell Phones Off

I spoke with several communications providers at the Airline Passenger Experience Association show last month, and there was a common theme out there regarding mobile phones. Use of these devices in the air is increasing worldwide, and the US is quickly becoming the only place around to still want to keep their use banned. Now that mobiles are seeing more widespread use globally, we can finally judge whether the fears in the US are merited or not.

The reality is that it hasn’t been much of a problem at all so far, and that’s probably due to the rate structure. The way it’s set up, you can think of airplanes as a separate country in the mobile world. Just as you would roam when you go to any other country, you roam when you get on an airplane. If you have an international plan, you would be able to make calls, receive text messages, and surf the web as your plan allows.

And a lot of people do just that. If you need to tell someone you’re late or change the spot where you want to meet, a quick text message will do the trick. Or a quick email can do the same and it won’t cost much. And yes, if you need to actually call Aunt Bessie to tell her where to bring the Cadillac to meet you, you can do that as well, but roaming charges can ramp up quickly. So it’ll be a quick conversation.

Everyone’s worst nightmare is getting stuck next to the valley girl who giggles and screams with her friend on the other line throughout the flight. That’s just not happening and it’s not likely to happen. (If it does, her parents will never let her out of the house again.) Yes, I’m sure that at some point this will happen, but social pressure and flight attendant intervention can solve that problem (along with determined staring at close range).

You’re far more likely to get stuck next to a gregarious seatmate who wants to talk your ear off all flight anyway. Phones just aren’t proving to be a problem. That could change if rates plunged, but I don’t see that happening in the near future.

But if that were to happen, the airline doesn’t even have to allow phone calls at all. Look at British Airways, for example. Using the system from OnAir, with whom I spoke at the show, on their A318 flights between New York and London/City, you can send text messages or surf the web using your mobile network, but you can’t make phone calls. They’ve turned that functionality off.

Now, the US itself does make things difficult in that most of the world is centering on the GSM standard for inflight while many in the US use CDMA. That’s something that can be addressed, but not until it’s made legal to use your phone in the first place. I’m convinced that there is more benefit to be had than there is potential harm to be made. Let’s open up the rules and see what happens.

[Original Photo via Flicker user Kai Hendry]

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58 comments on “Mobile Phones Should be Allowed on Airplanes

  1. Brett- I think you are wrong on this one. It is unfortunate that much of the American public seems to be in selfish “me” mode in public places. Have you been to the movies lately ? Even though there are plenty of nice video clips asking for cell phones to be silenced, many are not and these boorish boobs continue texting and talking. Why bother buying a ticket to the movies ? I probably sound overly negative but I envision the day with the idiot next to me on my flight to Vegas “yapping” all the way there about all the partying he/she will be doing. Or the business guy that can’t let the deal rest for a couple of hours but has to rehash the BS “loudly” with everyone in his company. They are in the terminal already and will move the conversations onto the plane. I vote NO.

    1. Exactly! Americans are a self centered vs the rest of the world. All about me, I have to line up on the red carpet to get on the plane first, and must get my upgrade. They won’t care how the person next to them feels or how the poor flight attendant trying to offer them a drink feels when they are chatting on the phone.
      Its all fine and dandy to say “quick e-mail, quick text” in reality, it will be me, me, me how great am I and does EVERYBODY on this 767 know, that I am busy on the phone, because I AM IMPORTANT

        1. I agree with Cyndi. After THREE ANOUNNCEMENTS and a verbal face to face, “that needs to be TURNED OFF”, there is a arrogance about passengers who think they dont need to follow the “RULES”.
          Cellphones on flights? Why stop there, let’s add GAMBLING. Ohh, that SCREAM YOU HEARD was someone winning $1000.00 bucks at their seat.
          Lets NOT be so quick to think a flight attendant can and will get involved in EVERY passenger altercation over this issue. We’re busy. You’re adults, arent YOU?
          If this does come onto flights, there better be a NO PHONE ZONE onboard.
          There’s enough issues regarding passenger decorum onboard these days, why ADD TO THEM???????

    1. With these systems phones onboard don’t connect to towers on the ground, the onboard systems (and phones) are only switched on only above a certain altitude. The onboard system is effectively an onboard tower, and it commands all phones onboard to connect to it at their lowest power.

    1. Good one! Be sure to read out only every other sentence to fully give the experience of “half the story” to your seat mate.

  2. Brett – I’m with the commenter crowd on this one, and always have been since forever.

    The airplane is the last refuge of the connected lifestyle. Sure, airborne wifi is closing that gap – but the lack of phonecalls aboard still keeps the plane peaceful. For the love of all things holy let it stay that way lest you risk death by seat mate.

    It’s bad enough that I have to spend a whole journey to the office on board public transport listening to the prattling of all and sundry. I enjoy being able to board the plane, and the only noise I’ll hear is a crying baby, fidgety kids, or one of the friendly flight attendants tapping you on the shoulder for a dinner choice while engrossed in a film.

    If there’s something you need to call about in the air, then you should deal with it before you get on board – or catch a later flight. Nobody wants to, or needs to hear your conversation at 30,000ft when they can’t do anything to avoid it.

  3. The easiest way to handle boorish people who want to have conversations in public places is to join in on their conversations. Ask questions, give advice, and eventually the person will hang up in self defense.

  4. I am completely with Brett on this one. The banning of cellphones is a silly rule. Will some people abuse the freedom to make calls while in flight? Yes. However, the vast majority of people will not. And if you are next to someone that is talking, do as Nab suggests. It really works well.

  5. I have to admit, I’ve shifted my view on this one. I used to be fully against mobile phones on flights, but now I wouldn’t be against it.

    Partially it is because we haven’t seen any disruption with the pay in-seat phones. In generally, nobody uses them, and they seem to have quietly disappeared from most flights I take. There doesn’t seem to be much of a thirst for gabbing on a phone while flying.

    Mostly, though, it is viewing how people are using mobiles nowadays. Even in North America, more and more people are shifting from using mobiles as a voice device to using it for text or email. Even on the ground most people just have quick calls on their mobiles, and often use them for text or email.

    I just don’t think the disruption will be as bad as feared.

  6. I approve SMS usage with the ringer muted. No voice calls, no loud obnoxious “new text has arrived” ring tones.

    (of course I realize no one cares about what I approve)

    The question is – how much are the airlines/providers going to charge for this service, and is it going to turn into another in-seat-phone or GoGo situation where usage is very limited?

  7. I never saw many (if any) using seat back phones when airlines had them. I know I used one once because I was coming home early and didn’t have time to call a friend from the airport (before cell phones) for an earlier ride home. But that was a quick call.

    I have been on a commuter train where you could hear people talking half a car length away and I have had the person sitting next to me talking on the phone and didn’t even know it since they were very quiet and the train makes noise that helps cover the sound up.

    So you will have naturally loud people next to you and others who are as silent as a mouse. Those wearing ear phones to listen to a movie or music won’t even know. If people understand ahead of time the cost is high to use their phone, they will not do it other then for a quick call home to let their pickup person know to leave the house now. One exception will be business travels whos company will pay for the call. They will make long calls that are not business related knowing it won’t cost them anything.

  8. I fear it might not be many people talking on their cell phones at first, due to high costs, but like everything else, I would assume the costs would lower over time, allowing more people to talk.

    I think there is too much money involved for airlines and cell phone providers not to jump on this sooner or later…so I guess we will all see if Americans can behave as well as the rest of the world.


      1. I am not only afraid of people being rude on the phone, but also others being rude to the people who are on the phone, causing a real fun scene.


  9. David Parker Brown hits it on the head here with the descending cost argument. Additionally, I don’t think that you can compare seatback phones, which in their heyday charged truly exhorbitant connection fees and minute-by-minute rates, with current international roaming plans.

    Yes, it is easy to rack up big bills when roaming internationally, but think about it: who is most likely to be yakking away on his or her Blackberry in these types of situations? Cranky is right that it won’t be the teenage girl (she’ll be busy texting, and that’s just fine). No, it will be even worse than that. It will be every bottom line-driven, type-A business person with a company-funded mobile device and an expense account. That eight-hour transatlantic flight (or, even worse, the 14-hour transpac) will now provide hours of de facto office time, replete with the ability for people to expose the entire plane (or at least the rows around them) to their crack bargaining and negotiation skills. After all, if you can make it rain in Tokyo while jetting off to London, why not do so if you’re already on the company clock and dollar?

    This might be good for business, but I’m selfish in my own right. I don’t want to hear you talking 20 decibles louder than is necessary about your eight-figure deal with no means of escape beyond earplugs or noise canceling headphones. The deal can wait until the plane lands, but that’s not how many business travelers think, and it certainly isn’t how corporations operate.

    I vote nay on cell phone use, at least for conversing.

    1. You are 100% right on this one, as one of the people on a company plan I never pay attention to what my rate is anywhere in the world. And if my boss finds out that I can talk while on a flight I will be invited to meetings and expected to contribute. To just hope that everyone behaves and plays nice is naive.

    2. What’s funny to me is that a lot of businessfolks don’t realize that working on a laptop or talking on the cellphone about work in a public setting, like a commuter train or an airliner, is absolutely terrible practice from an IT security standpoint. Ok, you go ahead and work on your company’s latest figures on your laptop, and talk loudly into your phone about that upcoming takeover bid. I’m sure the gentlemen from the competing company sitting in the seat next to or behind you is more than happy to keep his mouth shut and take notes, and probably thanks you for the free information.

      As a rule, my company prohibits work in any sort of public place like this, for precisely this reason.

  10. I also think you are wrong. I am sure if you took a poll, you would find business travelers HATE HATE HATE this idea. Are you kidding me? Are you expecting already overworked and sleep deprived flight attendants to be the cabin police? They can barely make sure folks are storing their junk under the seats and have turns all electronic devices off. Many do not, they just hide them when flight attendants come through. Good news is that digital cell phone signals are received, so batteries just go dead searching for signals.

    If you want to come down on it, why did we ban smoking? Because it was OBNOXIOUS. OH yea, and while I can tirade on this a bit, what about SMOKELESS products that airlines SAY they ban, but people are still seeing spitting in to bottle or cups. GROSS.

    I think the real fear here is that Gogo Inflight will open the port to allow Skype. Then we got real trouble. When I am seating next to someone who constantly talks loudly, I just make comments on the conversation. They see that I am listening and then hang up. I have yet to have someone way “why are you listening to my private conversation.” HAHAHA.. get real.

    Now, lets go the next step and ban children, and in particular LAP children who are sick with colds, whose ears are clogged and can’t equalize and scream through the entire flight and will eventually go deaf because their stupid parents fly them when they have non-functioning eustachian tubes.

    OR even better, do what AMTRAK did… have a QUIET CAR! No screaming babies, no cells phone, no “Loud talkers”. Would I pay extra for this? OH HECK YEA!


  11. As a frequent world traveler I object to the suggestions that Americans are boorish. Frankly there is a world full of boors (and A**%OL#S). We don’t have a corner on the market of jerks. Most of the Americans I meet overseas are generally pretty cool. There are some other nationalities I wouldn’t say the same about.

    Cell phones on planes is a bad idea because many people dont realize they are being obnoxiously loud on their mobiles. And while many times there is one or two loudmouths on a plane you can tune them out because it is a natural conversation. Phone conversations are unnatural, thus more noticeable, and more difficult to tune out.

    1. “””””And while many times there is one or two loudmouths on a plane you can tune them out because it is a natural conversation. Phone conversations are unnatural, thus more noticeable, and more difficult to tune out.””””””

      That is so true, you don’t hear 2 or more people having a conversation, but that one person having a one sided cell phone conversation can be heard loud and clear.

  12. Let’s not forget that, due to the background noise on aircraft, people will be talking even louder than normal into their phones – possibly louder still if they have to counteract that other object-of-air-travel-hate, crying babies.

  13. Do you really think that if the US airlines were able to provide this service that the flying public with zero manners would speak softly or for a minute? Sorry Cranky, I still disagree.

  14. I strongly oppose the use of cell phones on airplanes. I despise hearing other people chat endlessly, and get enough of it just sitting in waiting areas. Please! I want to read or sleep or work on a plane, not listen to other people’s conversations. True, considerate people will abstain, but think about your conversation hearing range. In a 3 X 3 seat arrangement, one thoughtless person out of 18-30 in his/her voice-detection range, who carries on a conversation, will be bothering perhaps 29 other people.

  15. Totally against it…!!! It’s bad enough having to endure the odor of gas passed by various and sundry thoughtless seatmates. Add the talking gas to the mix and put me in the cargo hold…

  16. For us communications’ equipment technologically-illiterate (well, maybe just me), does all this mean that one could actually “receive” calls from someone on the ground while one is sitting there at 35,000 feet?

    Like crazy “Aunt Bessie,” calling me 12 times on a flight assuring me she’s making progress to the airport to pick me up, now that she’s finally found her car keys, but discovering she doesn’t have as much gas in her Cadillac as she thought an hour ago, and maybe I heard her operation went well, but…and on and on? [Cost means nothing to her!]

    Calls from my nutty boss, and every other person who somehow found my phone number? And this for every other person on the plane?

    If yes, really?

    1. That’s a good question and point. Even if the talking doesn’t annoy you, having to hear all the ring tones would be quite annoying.

  17. I completely disagree with this notion of allowing voice cell phone use. Think about when you land and the number of people who have insanely loud sound clips that play when they turn on their phones? Or, what about the person who can’t hear and speaks so loudly that most of the plane can hear them? It will certainly make an already (at times) frustrating experience that more unbearable. Furthermore, I reject people’s assertion that it’s just us “Me” generation folks who are completely uncouth and lacking in phone etiquette (I and my pride ourselves on being appropriate users of phones, thank you very much). I once sat across the aisle from a condescending 50-60 year old man who was trying to speak with his stock broker about changing selling some stocks. The connection was bad, so he kept speaking louder and louder and trying to re-iterate his request. Not only was it gauche to be talking about his money matters, but it was supremely irritating. And don’t get me started on the older generation of cell phone users who dial up their speaking voice when talking on a cell…just because… Oh, and they’re just as clueless as the young “teenage girls.”

    1. Nick I know when I used the phase ‘me’ generation I did not state an age group. Today the ‘me’ generation refers to many people as people today just think of themselves and have the ‘rules don’t apply to me’ attitude. Young or old so many people these days don’t think about others or have basic manners.

  18. Please. I’ve been a flight attendant for almost 25 years and in that time the climate of our job and responsibilities have increased dramatically while our pay has decreased relatively. We work with skeleton crews and for much longer duty days. To add communications monitor to our expanded litany of babysitting chores would just add insult to injury. I think most of us would agree that people traveling these days, domestically, shouldn’t ever be left alone with a cell phone and certainly never on a plane.

  19. We used to have smoking or nonsmoking on planes, so now maybe it should be phone or no phone section. One will need to be a sealed sound proof area. Makes the double desk A380 look more attractive of an airplane. One deck for phone users and the other for nonphone users……LOL

  20. Go for it Brett! It has been a lonely place taking a stand in favor of in-flight calls. Glad you joined the ranks of those in favor of in-flight calls. It never used to be a problem and won’t be in future either.

  21. For the most part, I don’t think that calls would be good. As the comments above have said, people will be talking extra loud due to the airplane noise. And even on the largest airplanes you will be able to hear someone else on the phone from halfway down the airplane.
    That being said, I do agree that it would be convenient at times. Maybe allowing calls for the first and last 15 minutes you can use electronic devices after takeoff and before landing, so you can call friends who will pick you up at the airport, call someone to say goodbye and so on, but ban talking on phones for most of the flight. Might as well also allow SMS messages, although I personally would not want to be texting anyways.

  22. Last time I was in an airport lounge, I learned about a lady’s gastric problems and a gentleman’s million dollar deal. For some reason, people talk loudly and in public on cell phones. The reason may be that the poor feedback on the other end makes them think they have to speak more loudly.
    Instead, on airline flights they should be able to use visual communications such as the Blackberry or text messages.

  23. I’m against it. I’ve noticed that the length and loudness of cell phone calls seem to be inversely related to their importance. Give a yahoo an inch …

  24. CF,

    I normally agree with you, but not this time. Sadly, civility is already quite low on airplanes. Allowing cell phones on board will allow the most boorish on board to make bad flights even more unbearable.


  25. Clearly lots of passion on this issue, but I have problems with people who say that I’m wrong. It’s my opinion – it’s not a right or wrong issue. Everyone can have their own.

    My opinion is that the government shouldn’t be regulating this. If Spirit wants to allow it on their planes and make a buck, go for it. If United decides it wants to market itself as the cell phone free airline, then that’s great for them. If Delta wants web and text but no phone, then that’s fine too. But why should this just be banned?

    And everyone goes straight for the phone call as the biggest issue. As mentioned, BA has it set up where you can surf the web and text but not make calls. That’s not possible today because of the rules in place. So the feds shouldn’t be regulating this – let the airlines decide if they want to offer it or not and then passengers can vote with their feet depending upon what they prefer.

    1. I might not like the idea of cell phones on airlines, but you are totally right — the government shouldn’t be regulating it. I mean if an airline provides it and people pay for it or are willing to put up with it, then great!


    2. Cranky – I understand the need for airlines to differentiate themselves through product variation. Indeed, I understand about allowing market forces to determine the implementation and adoption of various technologies and services aboard airplanes. I think Southwest’s no-baggage fees vs. Spirit’s charges for everything are perfect examples of this differentiation. However, when do we say enough with the market forces and instead require some basic courtesies or, dare I say it, fliers rights? I think the Ryanair proposal to charge for lavatory use is a prime example of where the market requires some rules and regulations to ensure some semblance of propriety. It comes down to how we perceive and value the flying environment and how that’s communicated to the airlines themselves. Free food was an easy option to get rid of – people were constantly complaining about it and I’m sure there was plenty of waste. Charging for drinks? Well, that went by the way side because the only major that did it was US Airways. Cell phones? Internet connection use? Sure. But the vehement disdain and opposition for voice function use of cell phones may indicate a need for airlines to carefully consider whether this implementation is truly worth it…whether a quieter cabin is a common good and something to be appreciated? Or, is cell phone use an experiential value add and viable revenue line that will bring greater enjoyment to the flying public…

    3. Cranky, I think your argument about airlines differentiating themselves based on cell phone use policy is interesting, but flawed. Two reasons: (1) many business travelers don’t have the ability to choose the airline they fly based on things like cell phone policies. The choices are driven by schedule, corporate contracts, price, etc., meaning that the business traveler’s desire to not fly an airline that allows cell phone use (or vice versa) is, in reality, more limited than your argument would make it seem. Sadly, I doubt many companies will have their travel policy consider cell phone policy more heavily than price. Similarly, while individual business travelers may wish to avoid cell phone calls (as the plane is often the last refuge of being able to avoid calls), I fear that companies will press travelers to take voice calls on planes in the ongoing push to turn every moment into a “productive” moment. (2) In this environment, I doubt any airline will be willing to differentiate itself as a “cell free” airline, simply because adding cell phones will represent another ancillary revenue opportunity they won’t want to ignore.

      If airlines go with allowing cell phone calls (I’m against it!), perhaps we’ll see airlines doing what Amtrak has done on the Acela: a “quiet cabin” just like the “quiet car.”

  26. Absolutely no phone calls – it’s about the only place to avoid people. Elevators are not even safe anymore. On the plane people talking on them after the main cabin door is closed – talking or texting and “not getting caught” most of the time – it’s all about me, me, me and my I I I phone – forget it, turn them off.

  27. Nope. Nyet. No.

    I still recall a dreadful episode when a guy was on the phone for my entire 1 hour train ride! What he thought he should be paid, how much he was paid, what he thinks he will be paid…

    None of the other passengers (myself included) had the guts or ‘rudeness’ to tell him to shut the eff up!

    Phone conversations carry. They are annoying to most of us within earshot. So I hope this remains a no-no especially in economy class where we sit cheek by jowl… where I can hear the passenger in the next seat snoring! Let alone yammering on the phone!

  28. I think many people wouldn’t actually end up using this. I just got back from a trip to Canada, and while I used my phone as an organizational tool, and I got on the internet with it when it was in the range of WiFi, I didn’t use its voice or texting features, they just cost too much.

  29. Hi Cranky, normally I wouldn’t leave a comment to say the same thing that a zillion others have said but I’m so vehemently opposed to this idea that I can’t be quiet….

  30. I personally hate the idea. I used to fly Emirates a lot, and they have mobile capability on some of their flights. I was on one flight where the guy behind me was jabbing on for hours….its was a totally miserable experience.

  31. Your personal comfort is not more important than freedom. We need less government intervention in our lives, not more. When you think there ought to be a law for something, there probably shouldn’t.

    If enough people are serious about “quiet” flights, the market will serve the need. If not, it certainly wasn’t important enough to legislate.

  32. One thing that came to mind for me; I have a Blackberry which has UMA functionality. Now what happens, if an airline allows wifi on their flight but not gsm connection. I could (providing the router is compatible) connect my phone to the wifi and still be able to make calls using uma. How would they necessarily get around this?

  33. I’d expect that they block SIP which is what most VoIP runs over. UMA doesn’t seem to be the same, but I’d expect it has its own ports that it runs over.

    Another concern is the lower bandwidth combined with multiple users could result in excess jitter and packet loss on the line making it unusable for VoIP without being prioritized, which I’m sure the airline doesn’t do..

  34. Please, not the last bastion of peace and quiet, the airline cabin! From riding long distance buses and trains throughout the world where cell phones are permitted, I can tell you first hand that “social pressure and flight attendant intervention” do nothing to stop obnoxious cell phone users. For some reason, these people a) have never heard of the function “vibrate” on their phones, which ring with increasingly loud and annoying Ricky Martin ringtones all night long, b) insist on talking at a volume level that appears that they are trying to be heard over a heavy metal band, and c) do not spend their call time making quick, emegency calls, but rather chattering ad nauseum about the results from their latest gynecological exam, dentist appointment or dysfunctional relationship. No to cellphones at 30,000 feet!

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