Share This Page

U.S. airlines in no rush to add cellphone calls

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 5:58 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — In the skies over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, airline passengers can chat and text on cellphones without getting an angry look from a flight attendant.

Thai Airways, with regular flights from Los Angeles to Bangkok, recently announced plans to offer onboard cellphone service, joining about 20 other foreign-based carriers that already offer it.

But U.S. carriers are not rushing to jump on the bandwagon, even though aviation experts say new satellite-based technology makes airborne cellphone calls safe.

“It's not a priority of ours right now,” said Mary Frances Fagan, a spokeswoman for American Airlines.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission prohibit cellphone calls on planes over U.S. airspace, but federal officials say they would listen to requests by airlines to lift the restrictions.

But don't expect airline officials in the United States to press for such changes. They cite the extra cost and hassle to test, install and operate cellphone technology as one reason to keep cellphones off domestic flights.

And airlines point out that passengers are not clamoring for the service, according to several surveys that say most air travelers expect that in-flight cellular service will lead to loud phone conversations and onboard fury.

“Cellphone offerings and voice-over data is not something that our members are seeing strong demand for from their passengers,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation's airline industry.

Even flight attendants have voiced opposition, saying cellphone calls would only make their jobs more difficult.

But on foreign airlines, reports of cellphone calls causing disputes or disturbances have been rare, primarily because calls are costly — starting at about $1.20 per minute — and noisy aircraft cabins deter long conversations, according to foreign carriers and their passengers.

On a Virgin Atlantic flight this summer from London to Miami, record producer Corey Johnson's short cellphone call was met with curiosity, not anger, from fellow passengers.

“For a business owner like myself, it's an option that's great to have,” he said, “if, like myself, you never shut off.”

Brett King, an author and speaker on the banking industry who has flown on Emirates Airline and Qatar Airways, said calls cause no friction because passengers are instructed to keep their phones on silent mode to stifle the ring and calls are not allowed in a “quiet zone” of the plane where passengers might be sleeping.

The fear that cellphones on planes will lead to loud conversations and conflicts, King said, are unfounded.

Passengers on Emirates Airline flights have used their cellphones more than 10 million times to send and receive text messages and emails and an additional 625,000 times for voice conversations since the airline began offering the service in 2008, according to the airline. But the airline says it has received only two passenger complaints about loud calls.

“The majority of people are considerate about using cellphones,” said Patrick Brannelly, a spokesman for Emirates, adding that most passengers use their cellphones to send text messages. “It's a self-managing environment in many ways.”

Helping to keep the peace, onboard cell technology typically limits the number of phone calls that can be made simultaneously.

“We found that people are courteous and most calls are shorter than two minutes,” said Ian Dawkins, chief executive of OnAir of Geneva. It is one of two major technology companies that has installed cellphone service on 20 foreign airlines.

But in the United States, passengers and airline officials predict feuds and clashes among fliers if cellphone service is activated on planes.

“If you let people use phones on planes, I'm afraid they will abuse it,” said Meredith Wilson, a Seattle resident who recently flew into Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif. “It could cause a lot of problems.”

Craig Patton, a Denver resident who recently flew to Southern California, said he doesn't mind the ban on cellphone calls on planes.

“I'm not addicted to my cellphone,” he said. “I can go two or three hours without texting or talking on the phone. I'm old school.”

Without demand from passengers, U.S. airline representatives say they won't press federal officials to allow cellphone calls on domestic flights.

“Right now, our focus is on what customers say they want, and that is in-flight Wi-Fi,” said Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, the nation's most popular domestic carrier.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.