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.
- You can use noise cancelling headphones.
- People talk to seatmates now. Sometimes they’re loud. They bring crying children onboard, too. Why are cell phones worse?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Overhearing conversations can actually be interesting, especially if the person you’re eavesdropping on is famous. It’s great fodder for your social media.
- 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.