The Fable About In-Flight Cell Use

If you've noticed more people leaving their cell phones on during flights — and apparently not in the so-called airplane mode — so have I.

While slightly disconcerting, it also might be fine. Several non-U.S. airlines allow in-flight cell phone use for voice calls, including Emirates and Malaysia airlines and, within the next year, Cathay Pacific Airways and, on a trial basis, Virgin Atlantic.

Could such allowances be made in the United States? Certainly, said Michael Planey, a consultant on in-flight passenger technologies. But bans would need to be lifted by the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FCC ban has nothing to do with air safety; it is to prevent cell phone towers from being overwhelmed by thousands of quickly moving phones searching for signals on the ground. In late 2004, the agency considered overturning the ban but relented in the face of public opposition. The FAA ban is in place to prevent possible interference with airplane functions.

It's easy to find experts to take opposite sides on whether cell phones present a risk to aviation controls. Planey argued that cell phones present little risk, and the overseas experience seems to bear that out. The primary hurdle, he said, is convincing the public that voice calls wouldn't drive them crazy.

"Everyone assumes they'll be stuck next to a teenager yapping away on their phone for a six-hour flight," Planey said.

The key, Planey said, is making people pay handsomely for the service — as much as $2 to $4 a minute (though Virgin Atlantic said callers on its flights will be charged by their mobile operator on their normal monthly bill, so the matter of charging clearly remains a work in progress).

In theory, no one could benefit more than the business traveler; just imagine getting work done while charging an employer for the cost. But the National Business Travel Association has supported House legislation that would ban voice communications on airplanes.

"Business travelers welcome the opportunity to work quietly in-flight while utilizing technologies such as e-mail, texting and instant-messaging," the association's director of public policy, Shane Downey, said by e-mail. "However, phone conversations can be disruptive in such an environment when so many require the few hours of peace between meetings."

Rick Seaney, co-founder of, said surveys show that about 85 percent of people oppose in-flight cell calling, which means a battle looms.

"Airlines will push for it at some point," Seaney said. "The question is whether enough people want it for the airlines to invest in the infrastructure costs."

He agreed that calling from the skies should be an expensive prospect but said there is no certainty that people would be willing to pay. And that makes sense. After all, how often did you see people calling the ground on those phones built into airplane seatbacks for so many years?

It's not just a phone

It's not like cell phones are a novelty anymore. The Pew Internet Project found in a survey that 8 in 10 adults in the U.S. use cell phones, and about a quarter of American adults live in a household without a landline phone. In addition, of course, phones aren't just for talking anymore. A few other Pew tidbits: 35 percent of adults have cell phones with apps. 29 percent of adults have downloaded an app to their phone. 10 percent said they had downloaded an app in the last week.