Since news came out that the FCC would consider lifting the ban on cell phone data and voice while inflight, there’s been a public outcry and a bit of backgracking.

Scott Mayerowitz reported today that even the FCC Chairman himself doesn’t like the idea of people making voice calls on their cell phones onboard airplanes. The FCC has also gone to some lengths to emphasize that they’re just looking at safety and whether the practice should be banned on that basis, so if there are ultimately cell phone calls on planes it’s your airline you should blame.

Eventually it’s highly likely we’ll see the ban lifted, because technology has evolved such that cell providers can make money providing the service rather than just being taxed heavily by inflight users. Airlines offering this would install relays to connect to phone networks. There’s even an opportunity for ancillary revenue here. And airlines with a heavy emphasis on corporate contracts might find their customers shifting business to them if employees can be made more productive during their travels.

So even if it doesn’t happen now, there’s certainly been a shift – public opinion perhaps not keeping up to that shift — in the underlying forces that had supported the ban.

It’s certainly not popular. It’s not actually even popular with me, largely because I don’t much like talking to people on the phone. There are only a handful of people I’ll talk to regularly over the phone. One is my 87 year old grandmother, who doesn’t check-in regularly online.

But I do think there are reasons to believe that inflight phone use won’t be as bad as we might first imagine.

  1. You can use noise cancelling headphones.

  2. People talk to seatmates now. Sometimes they’re loud. They bring crying children onboard, too. Why are cell phones worse?

  3. Several foreign carriers already allow this. It’s been onboard Emirates for over five years. We haven’t seen the predicted steady stream of chaos, fist fights, or other parades of horribles breaking out.

  4. Connectivity actually lets us accomplish things, especially during the business day. Greater productivity during dead time is one of the few pieces of ‘low hanging fruit’ left to goose the economy.

  5. It’s easier to justify billing your travel time and as a corollary, you may find it easier to justify travel to position yourself for the week during business hours instead of on your weekends, or to argue for comp time since you’re working on planes more.

  6. Connectivity is meaningful for relationships too. A parent can call their child to tuck them in at night, even while they’re on the road for a business trip. Dead time is a great time to make the call to your parents you’ve been putting off for too long.

  7. Choice is powerful. Some airlines won’t allow cell phones onboard. Delta has staked out that position. If you abhor cell phone use you can fly Delta (and if you abhor their Skypesos mileage currency, you can credit the flight to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan). Other airlines might allow it, or in designated areas or at designated times (e.g. not on overnight flights).

  8. Amtrak allows cell phones. They also offer a quiet car. Passengers get work done, connect to loved ones, and other passengers manage to reach their destinations unscathed.

  9. Overhearing conversations can actually be interesting, especially if the person you’re eavesdropping on is famous. It’s great fodder for your social media.

  10. It could bring down the price of inflight wifi. Currently each flight has a single provider, such as Gogo or Row44. If you want to connect, you have to pay them. But if you have a data plan, you have choice. And that may force the wifi providers to bring faster speeds sooner, or to lower their prices. That’s good for passengers.

Right now there’s a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of cell phones on planes. When the time – either in the coming months or years — comes, we’ll learn to get used to it. And it really won’t seem as bad then as it does now.


  1. Geri J. said,

    In-air cell phone usage is a terrible idea. And these 10 points aren’t convincing me otherwise.

    First, I don’t like noise-canceling headphones; why should I be burdened with blocking out some verbally territorial moron who has just been given another opportunity to be annoying. Plus, the good headphones are expensive.

    If you need to “connect” to get work done, let it be via on-board WiFi. And I don’t care what foreign carriers or AMTRAK do. If all the other kids jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? Also, to suggest that everyone who doesn’t like cell phone usage fly Delta — that would only work if Delta flies from every available commercial airport. It doesn’t.

    “Interesting” conversations? Seriously? Last thing I want to hear is someone’s inane drivel while I am flying. Bad enough we have to put up with all the other annoyances from our neighboring passengers.

    Finally, it seems as if the writer is so tied to cell phone use that he will grasp at any straw to justify his addiction. Poorly thought out argument.

  2. Kate said,

    Well for Amtrak. I took the train from dc to NYC a couple of years ago, did not realize about the quiet cars. it was dreadful listening to cell phone conversations at a volume that people are less likely to use next to a fellow passenger. The next time I took the quiet car. So much nicer! I pray that the airlines will restrict this. I have never overheard an interesting cell phone conversation.

  3. Jay said,

    I get it works for people like you who fly first class all the time

    Some of us are wedged in a middle coach seat. I don’t want to sit btw two loudmouths yelling over the engines for 6 hours.

    You being able to bill more hours doesn’t help that

  4. Traveller said,

    They will be bad, worse than you think.

  5. Marc said,

    Shouldn’t they allow text and data ASAP while the debate on voice continues? I get that some people are against voice, but who is against text and data, and why must the debates be linked? Besides, spotty coverage in the air is much more useful for non-continuous transmissions like text and data not voice.

  6. justSaying said,

    Go ahead and turn the bus into a bus!

  7. Jackson said,

    If an airline offers it, I’m voting with my wallet by booking AWAY from them

    Judging from those phone conversions you hear in subways in Asia (exc japan) I can imagine how much worse on a 17 hour flight from Dallas to Brisbane

  8. mrredskin said,

    you just playing devil’s advocate, here, or do you really believe all of these points?

    technically, you’re “media”, so i surely hope it’s just devil’s advocate to drum up some more comments and credit card click-thrus

  9. Lindy said,

    I thought Gary’s points were logical and well-made. But Geri’s criticisms were off-base…he must’ve just skimmed through the list instead of reading & understanding Gary’s points. The most valuable point is that Emirates has ALREADY allowed cellphone use for 5 tolerable years. Geri, if YOU want complete silence on the planes TODAY, you can’t get it unless you use headphones, because people talk. So just keep wearing the headphones you already have to wear. Or else you can put up with the same level of noise you already have to put up with… because noise level won’t change. I’m truly shocked at the number of posters who want to force others to be less productive and less contact-able. How about worrying about the way you’re inconveniencing others, instead of how they MIGHT, possibly, rarely, hypothetically inconvenience you. There’s a novel concept. In the long run, lifting the pointless cellphone ban will reduce everyone’s stress.

  10. Geri J. said,

    Lindy — Just an FYI — I’m a she not a he. And I did not skim the list, I read it.

    I do not use any headphones or in-ear devices at all. Don’t like them; they are bad for long-term hearing. Also, I never said I wanted complete silence on an airplane (talk about skimming). As you say, planes are noisy. I do not see that it improves the situation by adding to the cacophony.

    And, again, if Emirates’ customers want to tolerate cell phone usage, more power to them. However, as I said, just because the other guy does something doesn’t mean it is either useful or correct for someone else to do it.

    If the airline offers in-air WiFi, those who want to be contacted can be, but in a way that does not add to the existing noise level. I have no problem with people communicating via email and various written messaging systems. Besides, if you communicate in that manner instead of via cell phone, you will have a tangible record of your transactions, thereby increasing your productivity and accuracy. After all, important phone calls should be backed up by confirming emails and notes anyway. Save yourself a step, and improve your job performance.

    It is unreal how addicted and tied people have become to these electronic devices. Don’t get me wrong. I love my iPhone and iPad, but having learned at a young age how to function without them, a several-hour break in their use doesn’t send me into a tizzy.

    My take is that the pro cell-phone-in-the-air arguments merely present like a justification for a personal addiction. And if this all comes to pass, heavens forfend that the connection is disturbed in some way. The whinging and howling will be louder than any cries from the babies on board.

  11. Drew said,

    What a load of – please excuse the expression – crap. The few hours of relative peace and quiet one gets these days is onboard a flight, and the thought of sitting next to someone who is convinced the world only revolves when they are on the phone directing things, simply nauseates me. If you think there are incidents in air over seat backs reclining into your lap, just wait till Mr. or Ms. “I’m just so damn important” starts yelling into their cell phone making sure their dry cleaning has been picked up. In Europe, on many (if not most) trains, there are no cell phone or quiet cars. Obviously that won’t work on an airliner, so its time to keep the cell phones on airplane mode only.

  12. John said,

    I must agree with the anti-cellphone people. Keep it banned, allow wi-fi emails and text only IMs. This will allow people who need to be connected to do so, maintaining their productivity, while allowing the other passengers the peace and quiet they value. A win-win situation.You can bill your company for your productivity and have tangible PROOF of it with the emails in your laptop’s hard drive!

  13. Lindy said,

    There is and never has been a guarantee of peace nor quiet on a plane. People seeking THAT should go to a library, not take a plane ride. Also, describing carrying a cell phone as an “addiction” is untrue (and insulting)… Some people carry them to talk, some people carry them to listen, and some people carry them without using them. It’s YOUR choice to do with your phone whatever you want, and I support your freedom. Don’t infringe on mine until you have some hard data showing exactly what % of customers on Emirates flights were irritated by others phonecalls in the last 5 years, AND can quantify (with proof) the supposed increase in decibel levels in-flight. Until then, you’re scaring yourself about something you’ve never experienced. Seriously, when phones become approved inflight, it won’t be the hell you’re imagining it to be.

  14. James K. said,

    #2 is misguided.

    Studies show that cellphone calls are more frustrating because your brain responds differently to not being able to hear both sides of the conversation.

  15. Mike said,

    So now I should have to wear noise isolating headphones to drown out airborne telephone conversations. Good grief.

  16. Lindy said,

    James, “Research conducted at the Indiana University School of Medicine… Men listen with only one side of their brains, while women use both” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/11/001129075326.htm Sorry, it just struck me funny, after reading your comment. I’ll quit posting now :)

  17. Steve said,

    Kudos to Geri J. for some powerful points. As for the argument that planes aren’t silent anyway, that’s no reason to increase the noise level, particularly since it could stream from the person sitting right next to you. By that logic justifying cell phone talking, we might as well allow loud movies or constant commercial announcements to blare throughout the cabin throughout the flight.

    Over at Flyertalk’s United forum poll, 161 votes against cell phone use with 5 to allow them and 4 undecided. Let folks who absolutely must stay in touch in-flight use emails or texting, not talking.

  18. Geri J. said,

    Lindy —

    I accept that planes are not quiet. I readily admit that. I NEVER said that I expected library-like flights. (Really, you should stop skimming and misquoting.) However, I see no need to add to the noise level, especially as those with needs for connectivity can do so via email and IMs.

    As for your freedom, unfortunately, your proposed freedom to chat on your phone impinges on many persons’ freedom to be free from your conversations.

  19. Andrew said,

    This is an amazing money making opportunity!

    Courts have ruled that in public spaces you have no reasonable expectation of privacy, so if you sit next to a celebrity, just record what they say, and sell the story to the National Enquirer or some other tabloid.

    Overhear a businessman going on about some project, sell the information to the competition. As a passenger on a flight, I am not bound by any non-disclosure agreement.

    Or post a video to youtube for the whole world to see.

  20. Jorge said,

    I disagree on some of these:
    1) Not really, I have heard people with my Bose’s on. You know, the kind of people you could watch on the real housewives of New Jersey.

    6) Could be OK except for the schmuck who tells his fiance all the “fun” things they will do once they are in bed…

    10) I will give it a pass as long as voice is off. No issues with data or texting.

    but the worst of them, I would have to fly Delta !

  21. Deb said,

    Nooooo!!!!

  22. Moving Chicane said,

    If your time is so valuable that you need to use a phone on a intra-US flight to keep “shakin and movin with ther Movers and Shakers,” then go rent some private jet hours as surely you can afford it! Bah! Horrible idea!!!

  23. Joseph said,

    This is the research showing why hearing just ONE side of a conversation is so much more distracting (and virtually impossible to tune out) compared to hearing both sides of the conversation. Of all the times I’ve overheard conversations, I can remember one, maybe two, that were “interesting.” And they were still a nuisance. You are really stretching for positives here! thttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/health/research/28perceptions.html?_r=0

  24. Joseph said,

    I’ll dispute point #9, too. Last week, JFK-LAX, I sat next to a television actress who, between boarding and door-close, was complaining over her cell phone to someone who I can only assume was her PA. It wasn’t interesting. It wasn’t fodder for social media. And, if I thought that it was going to continue during the actual flight, I would have gotten off the plane and waited for the next departure.

  25. Susan said,

    No no no no no — HORRIBLE idea! Just — no. I find the arguments particularly unpersuasive–ok, lame–coming from a normally logical and creative blogger.

  26. Jack said,

    LOL. Can’t wait for all the “trip from hell” reports on flyertalk that now, along with the commonly mentioned screaming babies, will include a cast of blowhard dealmakers calling everyone they works with and bragging about the great deals they made, the woman/man having an argument with their significant other, etc. We sometimes have a bit of that now but I think people talk louder when they are talking on cell phones to make themselves heard. They will likely also have an urgency to talk about it to update all their contacts that are not on the plane with them. So we will get to hear their story not once but over and over again as they tell it to all the people they call.

    Will the airlines be furnishing the noise cancelling headphones?

  27. Jill said,

    I agree with those who take issue with your second point. Listening to someone talk on a cell phone IS worse than listening to a conversation between other passengers. As James K. said, there are scientific studies to support this notion. Essentially, when you hear a monologue, your brain tunes in to the conversation and seeks to complete the loop – your attention is drawn to the monologue more than to a two way conversation, and this has been demonstrated in the real world of travel, not just in the lab. Here’s the link to a synopsis in Nature – http://www.nature.com/news/2004/041004/full/news041004-5.html

  28. Gene said,

    #11 – You can call your friendz to bash Delta.

  29. Gustaf said,

    SAS, Scandinavian Airlines has been offering it on some of their 738s for a while. I occasionally end up on them and I never see/hear anyone talk on the phone. Why?

    Because it is an in-flight network, via satelite (because the mast on the ground doesn’t reach your plane) and it has rates that for outgoing calls are much higher than anything I’d consider paying.

  30. CW said,

    All the conversation so far has focused on people actually talking on phones. What about the far worse part which is ringtones? Horrible loud ringtones going off the whole flight. That stupid come-here-dog whistle tone that people have when texts come in (the one that goes “WHEE-whew”). Rap and Miley Cyrus ringtones. Phones placed in rollaboards and underseat luggage and going off and passengers digging for them. The guy in a window seat having to climb over everyone and dig through the overhead to find his bag while his phone buried inside it blasts “Wrecking Ball”. Or worse, him not being allowed to because the seatbelt sign is on. And tge caller keeps calling again and again…

  31. Lindy said,

    What about the far better part of lifting the ban, which is that people still won’t use their phones much anyway? Seriously, the “fear of the unknown” is wreaking havoc with everyone’s ability to be rational. The scenarios of torment and cacophony are just figments of your imaginations… AND even the worst of the things you’re imagining can be dealt with in other ways than allowing yourself to be victimized. How about a genuinely polite request to the plane passenger who is offending you, to see if the problem can be resolved, instead of falling into the depths of despair and dramatics? It’s a grown-up world out there, and almost everyone will give you what you need, if you give them what they need.

  32. Lindy said,

    It would be humorous to carry a printout of the research about 1-sided conversations causing frustration. Then when you are next to a person in a bldg, subway, bus, or plane and cannot seem to block out their conversation despite trying several solutions… you could SHOW them the study, and ask that they put their phone on speakerphone so you could hear both sides & be less frustrated. Hahaha.

  33. Pizza In Motion – Allowing The Use Of Cell Phones On Planes For Voice Calls Is A Bad Idea, Even If The FAA Says I’m Wrong said,

    […] […]

  34. Val said,

    Allowing cell phone calls would be a disaster. Wasn’t there a flight that had a emergency landing and forcible removal of a passenger for singing on a plane? What’s going to happen when the “blowhard” or 14 year old won’t stop talking loudly on the phone on a long flight when people are trying to sleep? Does the FA have to make a decision that they are disturbing everyone and divert the plane? Or maybe fist fights among the passengers? Noise cancelling headphones do a good job of blocking out background noise like the engines, but don’t block noises like ring tones or conversations right next to you much at all. It is inherently stressful for people to be crammed into a small space together. Lack of control, like when you can go to the bathroom, or when you can have a drink of water makes the stress goes up another notch. Adding opportunities for people to be rude and disturb people around them with their phone calls will only take it up a notch.
    Your point about Emirates is interesting. I’ve never flown them, but from what people post online they are supposed to have a much better in flight experience than US carriers in general. Perhaps for people with decent seat room and good service overall the extra hassle of hearing a bunch of phone calls doesn’t push you to your breaking point.

  35. Steve said,

    CW: “The guy in a window seat having to climb over everyone and dig through the overhead to find his bag while his phone buried inside it blasts “Wrecking Ball”.”

    Actually, I’d favor lifting the cell phone ban to hear this (if it’s the Springsteen song, not the Miley Cyrus one). But otherwise, I remain absolutely against it.

  36. Jack said,

    @Lindy “How about a genuinely polite request to the plane passenger who is offending you…”

    Okay let’s test that. I genuinely politely request that no one reclines their seat. I am tall, I like to work on my laptop on flights and if the person in front of me reclines their seat besides causing me physical and emotional discomfort it also hampers my ability to do my work. Discuss…

  37. beltway said,

    A horrible idea. As others have pointed out, hearing one half of some fool going on is cognitively far more annoying than listening to two people conversing together on the plane. (Also, there’s a natural feedback loop when people are sitting together; in my experience, you get a lot less yelling in the latter case.)

    As usual, The Onion offers apt commentary:

    If they lift the ban on cell-phone use, they better lift the ban on passengers beating the $#!* out of each other, too.

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/the-inflight-cellphone-ban,14784/

  38. tomri said,

    Amtrak allows cell phones. They also offer a quiet car. Passengers get work done, connect to loved ones, and other passengers manage to reach their destinations unscathed

  39. tomri said,

    Amtrak allows cell phones. They also offer a quiet car. Passengers get work done, connect to loved ones, and other passengers manage to reach their destinations unscathed

    HA HA HA HA

    Switzerland has these “quite cars” yea and people obey them like when they feel like it.

  40. Alan said,

    I’m sorry Gary, but those are some pretty useless reasons for why you should like it – how are having to use headphones a reason to like it? Are you not aware of the rresearch showing that part of the problem with mobile phone calls is that you only hear one side of the conversation and thus can’t tune it out as easily? Quiet cars on trains work as they have proper doors and vestibules between carriages, planes just have flimsy curtains. It may work on Emirates, but perhaps they’re a bit quieter using their phones? ;-) (see that other article re US pilots abroad). Oh and finally can you please give the Skypesos thing a bit of a break? It seems to be in almost every post! Anyway, hopefully you were just playing Devil’s Advocate and don’t genuinely believe these!

  41. Lindy said,

    Why don’t you all just work on exercises to mentally block out distractions? The only reason you get frustrated by 1-sided conversations is because your subconscious is begging to hear the other half. Get control of your brain, and you won’t be so bothered. YOU bought a seat next to a person 1″ away. YOU did that, knowing that the person may talk non-stop. The person may talk to you, or may talk to himself, or may talk on phone, or may talk to adjacent seat. But the only guarantee you get is that the person next to you MAY TALK. Deal with it. At the crux of this matter is FCC/FAA rules, not pretentious passenger opinions. I haven’t heard a single person give opposition for safety reasons. The only opposition I’ve read (on 2 different forums) is pretentious reasons: “I need my beauty sleep”, “I need quiet spa time”, “I get frustrated only hearing 1/2 conversation”). Get past yourselves, and realize that you are riding a bus. If you think you deserve more peace-and-quiet than a bus offers, then get your own transportation. Until then, accept that you are riding with 200 of your best friends. Hate noise? Get earplugs.

  42. Jack said,

    @Lindy – “Get past yourselves, and realize that you are riding a bus. If you think you deserve more peace-and-quiet than a bus offers, then get your own transportation. Until then, accept that you are riding with 200 of your best friends. Hate noise? Get earplugs.”

    I believe that is a good summary of Gary’s 10 reasons above. Should have just wrote that. LOL.

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