Why US airlines have blocked in-flight phone calls

Last updated 09:32 15/11/2013
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As the business jet climbs past 10,000 feet, Gogo onboard wireless network latches onto the Internet, and digital addicts fire up their smartphones.

Fingers fly across keypads on this demonstration flight over Manhattan to let users try an app called Text & Talk from the largest US airline Wi-Fi provider. Only there's little talk.

As US airlines navigate the new era of passengers allowed to stay connected through flights, technology may prove less powerful than American standards of etiquette.

Gogo's airline customers have told the company to block phone calls when the feature is added next year.

Allowing onboard phone calls would add "just another duty for the beleaguered flight crew, who will have to keep saying 'ma'am, the pilot can hear you all the way up in the cockpit' and 'sir, there are three babies on board whom we hope not to awake,"' Judith Martin, known to readers of her newspaper column and books as "Miss Manners," said.

Delta Airlines, United Continental and US Airways won approval to let passengers make more use of Wi-Fi connected devices including Amazon.com's Kindles and Apple's iPads after the Federal Aviation Administration on November 1 loosened its restrictions.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it would follow suit by the end of this month.

Text & Talk works around the US Federal Communications Commission's continuing ban on cellular-based text and calling, because its users connect over Wi-Fi. Delta, United and US Airways - all Gogo customers - forbid voice calls anyway.

"They think it would be uncomfortable to listen to the person next to you talk on the phone," Michael Small, chief executive officer of Itasca, Illinois-based Gogo, said. "We're going to respect that. It's going to be the airlines' call."

Outside US

Phone calls are allowed on many non-US airlines and tolerance is high among passengers, Aurelie Branchereau-Giles, a spokeswoman for the in-flight connectivity company OnAir, said.

The closely held company, headquartered in Geneva, offers a satellite-based service that lets people connect using their smartphones via an onboard network.

Clients include British Airways, Singapore Airlines and Aeroflot (Qantas, however, last year scrapped its plans to introduce in-flight wireless internet access on flights, citing a lack of interest after a nine-month trial).

About 10 to 15 per cent of usage is voice calls, she said.

"We haven't heard of a single complaint about people making calls" since the service started in 2007, Branchereau- Giles said. "An aircraft is a noisy environment, so the sound of a conversation doesn't carry very far."

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Also, she said, flight attendants can shut off the voice capability during night flights "to avoid the possibility of disturbance."

Quiet cars

US customers aren't so tolerant. Delta, in a survey, found 64 per cent of its customers viewed the potential for phone calls negatively, Kirk Thornburg, Delta vice president, engineering, said in comments filed with regulators.

"Voice communications, or voice calls, in a confined space such as an aircraft is simply something our customers do not want," Paul Skrbec, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Delta, said in an interview.

Cabin crews may find passengers focusing on phone conversations instead of safety briefings, Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants union, said.

"This is an issue we've been concerned about," Caldwell said.

Mobile phone conversations are inevitably louder than people speaking directly with each other, "and we also know from experience how well voluntary restraint works," Martin said.

Amtrak, the US national passenger railroad, established its first "quiet cars" in the Northeast US in 2000. They're now offered on certain other services. Passengers in those cars can't use devices that make noise and must leave the car to make or receive calls.

No separators

In quiet cars, "the only noise is passengers ferociously shhing one another," Martin said.

"Social pressure does work, but I can't say that I am optimistic about the airborne non-telephoners being able to keep the flying telephoners under control."

Leaving an airline cabin also isn't an option.

"Unfortunately for the airline industry, they can't really put a separator in," Jim Breen, a Boston-based analyst with William Blair & Co., said in an interview.

ViaSat. is readying an onboard Wi-Fi system for JetBlue Airways that will be able to offer voice communications, Mark Dankberg, chief executive officer of the satellite company based in Carlsbad, California, said.

"From a technical perspective it's absolutely possible and straightforward," Dankberg said. Taboos could erode as voice capability becomes more common, he said.

"My bet is it will. I think it will change," Dankberg said. "Just because people are used to it. And it's convenient."

Flyers in business aircraft already are using Gogo's service with voice calls enabled, said Small, the chief executive.

Gogo will be cautious about trying to spread the love. According to Small, it may remove the "talk" portion of the feature's name before it's put on US flights.

- Bloomberg News

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