Phones can be heard on domestic flights, but only 20 months to go before coast to coast

Look out Earth! The skies will soon be full of phone calls, with one major American airline joining its foreign peers in broadcasting the requisite message: We are nearing the age of airline cellphone calls.

The Federal Communications Commission had already encouraged airlines to allow cell phone calls in flight. But airlines around the world are fast-tracking such moves – and Alaska Airlines announced last week that they will also allow passengers to make voice calls on flights.

If a Mexican airline operates a certain route, we’re going to allow passengers to make cellphone calls. We’re all going to be talking to each other, like passengers always talk to each other aboard airplanes, she said.

The national outcry over cellphone calls has been merciless, as you can imagine. Some airlines have been forced to suggest they hold out for 2020 – the end of cellphone flights before their time – in order to meet the public demand.

The announcement caused an uproar among proponents of the “no cell phone zone” principle: a major backlash that’s perhaps tied to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity, which is only good.

The legislation would also be a big loss to Americans at a time when their cell phone use on airlines and at airports is already rife. You can read about that here. (And click on the image of the angry voiced at the call to the phone!)

The telecom industry, of course, argues that cellphone calls on board planes would improve communications with ground operations (wink) and reduce air rage (wink). All this would probably lead to better safety – the only thing worse than cell phone calls is probably the lack of cell phone calls.

This is why the Congress passed the law against calling cell phones on the 10 months before it did. The argument could also be that the FCC actually had to put out a legal notice about “automated voice calling.”

This law came about in the wake of two separate incidents involving unruly passengers: In 2007, a woman struck a flight attendant with a toothbrush after refusing to stop speaking on her cell phone, and the following year, a woman yelled “I’m going to f—ing kill you” during a flight from San Francisco to Houston because the airplane’s Wi-Fi system was cut off.

“Cell phones on airplanes are a national embarrassment and a distraction from the pleasurable events that travelers care about most: eating, sleeping, reading, watching movies, and playing games,” Cynthia Carney, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Federation of America, said after the FCC’s decision.

The industry believes that voice calls on aircraft can also save fuel, they say, and that passengers will only become more impatient if they have to leave the plane because of a constant phone calls.

The US airline industry is “very conflicted” in terms of offering this service, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). It states that the only passenger benefits that voice calls would bring are “delay, inconvenience and lost sleep time” but adds that it must consider that “many passengers will not be comfortable with the idea of increasing their distractions during an otherwise peaceful flight.”

Before the FCC’s rules change – after the two years allowed by the rule – there will be international competitors to this rule. The Council of Europe will begin to consider its own proposals on the same issue.

“We don’t want this to be a novelty,” IATA Secretary General Alexandre de Juniac said of this and other new services that could come onto the market in 2020, like so-called “enhanced baggage inspections.”

“We are going to increase the level of diversity in the market,” he said. “This will give the airlines money and more control over their finances.”

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Alaska Airlines’ chief executive officer, Brad Tilden.]

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