Phone-friendly skies aren’t that annoying

Bloomberg NewsApril 1, 2014 

What would the friendly skies look like if you could use your cell phone on flights in U.S. airspace? On Wednesday, comments closed on a proposed Department of Transportation rule that would continue the long-standing U.S. ban on in-flight use of cell phones, and the response was overwhelming and predictable. “Increased conflict and misery,” predicted one of the 1,760 respondents. “Violence on the aircraft,” surmised another. Members of Congress seem to agree: In February, a House Committee voted to require the DOT to issue a ban, never mind the public comments.

The sentiment is understandable, emotional, and entirely irrational. Currently, more than 4,000 planes globally have been outfitted with wi-fi and cellular service, and the experiences of airlines and civil aviation authorities suggest that phones are no more detrimental to a safe in-flight experience than free wine and beer on international flights. Take, for example, Emirates, the Dubai-based international carrier that – according to its comments filed with the Department of Transportation – has offered “in-flight voice connectivity” since 2008. During that period, passengers have made more than 1 million calls on their own phones with “only two negative complaints registered to date.” Strikingly, of the users of the service, the third most frequent, according to Emirates, are Americans.

This is not just the self-serving rationalization of an airline hoping to earn the right to earn extra fees from passengers stuck on long-haul flights. The results are supported by data obtained during a 2012 Federal Aviation Administration study of 11 civil aviation authorities around the world that allow in-flight calling. The conclusions, far from suggesting an in-flight battlefield, reveal a far more benign picture:

“No non-U.S. civil aviation authority reported any cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations. Passenger complained about the cost of the cell phone service and when the cell phone service was inoperative or interrupted in flight.”

In all likelihood, the cost of in-flight calls is likely to be the most effective curb on the chaotic cabin environment that critics fear. To make calls, passengers will be routed through on-board call stations that don’t interfere with plane communications and which – not coincidentally – allow airlines to charge handsomely for the privilege of calling in-flight to arrange your airport pick-up. It’s the very reason why, for example, the in-seat satellite phones that appeared on U.S. airplanes in the early 1990s never became an in-flight problem: rates could exceed $3 per minute.

Today on Emirates, for example, charges are “in line with international roaming rates.” On many U.S. carriers, those can total several dollars per minute, depending on plan. Not surprisingly, Emirates passengers have sent far more text messages – a cheaper service in the air – than made phone calls, according to the company’s public comment to the Department of Transportation. New Zealand Airlines , which has offered in- flight calls since 2011, has noted the same phenomenon.

Nonetheless, due to the U.S. ban, the more than 20 airlines that allow in-flight voice calls must currently shut down those services when they enter U.S. airspace. So far, at least, there’s absolutely no evidence that such flights are any more safe or placid over Virginia than they are over France. In fact, they’re probably just more inconvenient and less profitable.

Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.

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