Yapping at 35,000 Feet: Should There be a Limit to Personal Electronic Freedom in the Air?


If you travel by air as much as I do, I am sure you cannot help but notice how angst- ridden many passengers become when they have to sever their cell phone’s wireless “umbilical cord” to the outside world as the flight attendants prepare the cabin for departure. You have also likely noticed those same people discretely turning on their cell phones at some point before the landing (that is, if they even bothered to turn them off at all) so as not to miss one sliver of connectivity when the announcement is made that it is permissible to use them during the taxi-in.

This situation, replayed countless times daily on U.S. commercial flights, speaks to one of the realities of modern communications: travelers have become so accustomed to being plugged in 24/7 that many of them view unfettered access to all of their electronic devices as a birthright, regardless of their location. Given this modern reality—if the technical challenges to implementation can be satisfied—should restricting their use be viewed as a modern form of electronic Luddism or do safety issues and behavioral challenges speak to the need to limit their use onboard our airliners?

Technical Barriers and Beyond

More than two decades ago the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a set of rules that prohibited the use of mobile devices onboard airplanes because of their propensity to overload ground-based cellular systems due to their ability to simultaneously occupy multiple networks. Since then technical advancements have been achieved that enable the expanded use of personal electronic devices onboard aircraft to include cellular phones, and in fact, over 40 foreign entities outside of the U.S. currently offer inflight cellular service reportedly without any negative impact to ground networks. The FCC is quite cognizant of the growing trend, and they have often been criticized for relying on rules that do not match the pace of technology. It is understandable that in keeping with their charter they would see the need to revisit the regulations as they did last December via a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) addressing the Rules for Wireless Access Onboard Aircraft.

In written comments accompanying the NPRM, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler states that updated rules will be a positive because they will be “pro-free market, pro-competition, pro-consumer, pro-technology, and de-regulatory.” All these are laudable goals to be sure, but paradoxically he later trades his Chairman’s hat for the person in seat 15A when he states, “I don’t want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else.”

Other members of the commission add additional concerns in their submitted statements, such as Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Reilly who question why, unlike a similar proposal contemplated in 2005, this NPRM does not take into account national security related concerns over cellular use in flight. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel perhaps best captures the sentiment of many of her colleagues by questioning whether in their role as public servants they should be looking beyond the technical barriers of expanded cell use in the public’s interest.

The commissioners’ remarks demonstrate the dilemma regulatory leaders face in expanding the use of cell phones; while they clearly acknowledge the need to stick to a process-driven, technically “pure” approach to the issue of implementation, they find it impossible to separate their personal views and experiences and openly question whether they should be looking beyond their traditional defined jurisdiction. Fortunately for them they are not the final arbiters in the matter. In the event that the FCC rulemaking activity determines that cell phones can be used from a strictly technical vantage, the commissioners have repeatedly emphasized that other key entities—most notably the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines—will act as gatekeepers in determining whether airborne voiceover cell ultimately becomes a reality. Nevertheless, if the commissioners cannot reach internal consensus on the issue this is a very telling signal.

The Safety Case

The FAA, in its role as the regulatory protector of safety for our national airspace system, has the prodigious responsibility of ensuring that any proposed technologies introduced into the aviation system maintain or improve the level of safety that exists prior to their implementation. In the event that the FCC were to give a thumbs up to introducing cell calls inflight, the FAA would still have the responsibility of evaluating all aspects of implementation just as it did prior to the October 2013 approval for the expanded use of personal electronic devices (PEDs, e.g., electronic readers and tablets) aboard aircraft.

Much like the steps that led to the certification of expanded PED use, it is not enough for the FAA to simply validate that cell phones—assisted by onboard Airborne Access Systems—will not interfere with the airplane’s systems because the FAA’s scope is much broader. Non-technical safety issues were a source of discussion and debate amongst the group that comprised the rulemaking committee on PEDs, and these kinds of issues would likely be even more prominent due to the anticipated impact the active use of cell phones can have on the safe conduct of the flight. While it is one thing for a passenger engrossed in an e-book to be “tuned out” from cabin safety announcements, the dynamic changes considerably when one person’s actions could block surrounding passengers’ ability to hear those important announcements.

Another significant concern exists over whether flight deck and cabin crewmembers might be drawn into escalating conflicts precipitated by a setting in which one person finds another’s conversation to be intrusive and/or offensive. Crews are generally loath to see changes introduced in the cabin that could devolve into a flight divert situation due to the combustible combination of an unruly passenger and tight quarters. It is for these reasons that groups such as the Association of Flight Attendants and Air Line Pilots Association have expressed their safety concern over cellular use onboard aircraft beyond limited ground operations. Returning to the core safety topic, fortunately for the FAA, even if it was to OK a regulatory framework for voice calls inflight that satisfied the safety case, it is not the final decision maker. The final step in the approval process would reside with the carriers.

Marketing Advantage or Book-Aways?

In the increasingly commoditized world of commercial aviation, airlines continue to aggressively pursue business tactics aimed at gaining marketing advantages and additional sources of revenue. The introduction of Wi-Fi equipped jets is one such example. It is also remarkable to note how rapidly a number of carriers were able to comply with the FAA’s implementation guidelines and then enable the use of PEDs in phases of flight—in a few cases within days of the announcement. By contrast, despite the seeming perks associated with expanded mobility and connectivity, the announcement of new cellphone rulemaking activity was hardly met with universal industry enthusiasm. Some airline CEO’s even took the unusual step of proactively stating that they would not provide for cell service inflight even if permitted, while others adopted a wait-and-see approach.

In a world where airlines are rushing to outflank each other, this reaction is telling because the tepid response by the U.S. airlines may have identified a tipping point where embracing a new passenger convenience technology is actually viewed as a detriment to customer service and ultimately profitability. And although it flies in the face of developments abroad, a prevailing thought (at least right now), backed up by very vocal customer feedback, appears to be that eliminating the possibility of having that person “yapping next to you at 35,000 feet” might actually add a premium touch to the U.S. airline service model. By contrast to their foreign counterparts’ marketing moves, could less actually mean more? The sentiment is certainly not universal, but a number of airline executives seem to think so.

Congress to the Rescue?

Among the cadre of airline frequent fliers, few log as many air miles commuting as the members of Congress. Consequently they bring a unique perspective to bear not only as lawmakers, but also as heavy consumers of commercial travel. Unlike the PED issue, which saw a tidal wave of public and congressional pressure aimed at expeditiously expanding their use, Congress recently introduced legislation designed to expressly forbid the use of cell phones inflight on domestic commercial flights. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), in sponsoring the Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act of 2013 with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), expressed the sentiment of many of his colleagues when he said it was “common sense” to keep mid-air phone calls off limits, and the guideline should be “tap, don’t talk.” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced a similar measure in the Senate. Clearly the sense among many is that it is in the public interest to act decisively as a final arbiter by stepping in with legislation that preempts any potential regulatory activity. In this instance, a number of airline executives and regulatory officials might very well breathe a sigh of relief should the legislature ultimately institute a standard that addresses the many issues stated above.

Unlike those who have the option of booking quiet sections or wandering to a café car on commuter trains, airline passengers by contrast have extremely limited personal space in the cabin of even the most capacious airliners. The issue of cell phones inflight now places our industry at a crossroads where increased electronic freedoms have the potential to erode what many view as one of their last personal freedoms: the right to have a travel experience that does not introduce any additional forms of intrusion into that personal space. Even if the technical and safety issues can be resolved on this matter, the issue is still far from resolved. The bigger question becomes not if we can facilitate the greater use of cell phones onboard our aircraft, but whether we should.

From my vantage as an airline pilot, I have witnessed first hand the tremendous benefits that emerging technologies have played in improving the safety and efficiency of our operations. From my perspective as an airline passenger, when it comes to the issue of cell phones and airplanes, perhaps the time has come to leave well enough alone.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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