Phones on planes? Let’s settle this once and for all

Americans don’t agree about many things – but cell phone use on aircraft may be an exception.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering a proposal that would require airlines to notify passengers if they allow the use of mobile wireless devices, such as smartphones, to make telephone calls and send messages while on board their flights. It is also seeking comments on whether to prohibit airlines from allowing voice calls on such devices.

You have until Feb. 13 to leave your comment.

In its current proposal, the DOT notes that

Under the proposed rule, airlines remain free to respond to those concerns by banning voice calls as a matter of policy, allowing voice calls only on certain flights (such as those frequently used by business travelers) or only during certain portions of flights (such as non-sleeping hours), creating “voice call free zones” where voice calls are not permitted, or through other means. As we explain further below, permitting carriers to allow voice calls onboard aircraft may create an environment that is both unfair and deceptive to consumers, and inconsistent with adequate air transportation. …

As noted above, the Department is unaware of any U.S. carrier that permits voice calls on its flights; moreover, foreign carriers disable voice call capability within U.S. airspace. Thus, at present, consumers purchase tickets with the reasonable expectation that voice calls will not be permitted on flights within the United States. Given the overwhelmingly negative tenor of the public comments submitted to the docket, it is reasonable to conclude that consumers may choose a flight based at least in part on whether the carrier has taken the unusual step of permitting voice calls on that flight. Under these circumstances, we conclude that consumers would be unfairly surprised if they learned for the first time, after purchasing the ticket, that their chosen flight permits voice calls.

The DOT also agreed with a suggestion that “the Department has the authority to require carriers to disclose their voice-call policies, if the airline does allow them.”

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According to the agency,

In February 2014, the DOT sought comment on whether permitting voice calls on aircraft constitutes an unfair practice to consumers and/or is inconsistent with adequate air transportation, and if so, whether such calls should be banned. More specifically, it solicited comment on a number of questions, including, but not limited to: (1) Whether the Department should refrain from rulemaking and allow the airlines to develop their own policies; (2) whether a voice call ban should apply to all mobile wireless devices; (3) whether any proposed ban on voice calls should be extended to foreign air carriers; and (4) whether exceptions should apply for emergencies, certain areas of the aircraft, certain types of flights, or certain individuals (such as flight attendants and air marshals). It did not seek comment on the technical or safety aspects of voice calls, because those fall under the regulatory authority of the FCC and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], respectively.

Out of over 1,700 comments from individuals in 2014, 96 percent favored a ban on voice calls, as did pilot and flight attendant unions and the consumer advocacy organizations Consumers Union and the Global Business Travel Association, which noted that limiting the use of mobile phones to “quiet sections” is not feasible on commercial aircraft. Some business travelers, however, have advocated for the ability to make “listen-only” calls, such as lengthy conference calls, and 2 percent did not support a ban on voice calls.

The DOT noted that “[most] commenters used strong language to express the view that voice calls in the presence of others are disturbing in general, and even more so in a confined space. Individuals also commented that voice calls would create “air rage” incidents by disgruntled passengers, place additional strains on flight attendants, and intrude upon privacy and opportunities to sleep.”

Several airlines and airline organizations, such as Spirit Airlines, Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association, on the other hand, argued for allowing airlines to develop their own policies and letting the “free market” determine whether mobile phone use for voice calls should be allowed on airplanes.

Some foreign airlines and suppliers of wireless mobile communications equipment commented that on foreign flights, mobile phone use has been increasingly allowed, with few complaints. They noted that on those flights, voice calls are rarely placed and are of short duration, can be disabled by the pilots, and that crewmembers are “adequately trained to handle any incidents that may arise as a result of voice calls.”

The DOT also indicated that “Our review of the individual comments … suggests, however, that U.S. consumers have come to expect a voice-call-free cabin environment and that they may generally hold a different view from foreign consumers on the issue of voice calls.”

But the current proposal makes clear that although the DOT is seeking comment from the public on whether or not to ban voice calls, it has no plans to actually implement such a ban. The proposal itself is limited to requiring airlines to adequately disclose their own rules regarding the use of mobile wireless devices on their flights.

A requirement for adequate disclosure of such rules certainly seems fair from a consumer advocacy perspective. After all, as the DOT notes, Americans are used to phone-free commercial airlines, so if the airlines are allowed to permit the use of mobile phones on board their flights, it’s reasonable that passengers would want to know that before booking tickets.

Then again, prohibiting the use of mobile devices altogether on commercial flights seems reasonable too. Nobody wants to be surrounded by hundreds of passengers all shouting into cell phones in an enclosed space. Or do they?

Should the U.S. Department of Transportation permanently ban the use of cell phones and other mobile wireless devices on American commercial flights?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • DChamp56

    I have an idea. Lets put all the people who want to operate their cell phones in the farthest back of the plane. No phones in first class either. (just kidding, I don’t want any phones on my plane)
    There’s very little on Earth that’s so important that it can’t wait for the plane to land. We’ve been living fine without it for years.

  • Jeff W.

    I would love to say that the free-market and choice should be the option. But the we all know how that will turn out.

    Unfortunately, civility is a dying trait. The airplane, by its very nature, is a noisy environment. And people tend to talk louder while on a cell phone, so imagine the volume of these talkers in a long metal tube. And passengers sitting next to these conversations will have no choice but to listen in. And flight attendants have enough to do besides policing disputes over cell phone calls.

    I know long ago, there used to be phones on planes. And the republic survived. But if I remember correctly, those seat back phone calls cost something like $10 to make the initial call and $3 a minute. Which pretty much discouraged the masses

    Just easier for all involved that people not be able to make calls for a few hours.

  • MarkKelling

    Most airlines have internet access available (for a cost) on their flights so people can stay in touch with family friends and work. To me this is enough. You can get any urgent messages you need and do so in a quiet manner.

    Yes, there used to be phones on planes. I never saw anyone use them (except for one drug dealer on a flight to Miami, but that’s another story for another time) and that was because of the price. The airline I flew mostly at that time charged $14.95 for “setup” and then $5 plus $3 a minute for calls. And the “setup” charge was every flight. The airlines simply priced themselves out of what even those who could afford it were willing to pay.

    Does anyone believe that airline pricing today would do any different? If cell phone usage is allowed, the airlines will set up cell equipment on planes so your calls route through them and then make it so that you end up paying roaming charges and whatever other types of charge they can squeeze out of you. It will not be affordable to the average cell phone user no matter what type of “free” calling is allowed under their plan. So let’s just keep things the way they are — no cell phones on planes.

  • Bill___A

    Although I am not an advocate of voice calls on planes, I note that there are a lot of obnoxious things that passengers indulge in which are significantly annoying. In fact, during the last 12 hours in the hotel I”m currently at (where people were making a LOT of noise in the hallway on their way to get into their room at 11:30 pm last night) and the completely inconsiderate activities right now in the concierge lounge, certain people should just stay home until they learn how to behave in public. Granted, there are a lot of very polite and nice people, but the number of individuals who seem to have received excellent training on how to annoy others is quite amazing.

  • AJPeabody

    Mobile phones have long been used for distant activation of bombs. Phones on a plane? I prefer snakes!

  • Bill

    Well said … thanks!

  • Alan Gore

    I would locate the quiet calling section out on one wing.

  • BubbaJoe123

    I was recently on a flight, and my phone rang. I was connected to WiFi, and I have WiFi calling enabled on my phone. Didn’t take the call, naturally, but surprised me.

  • ctporter

    People have grown accustomed to other passengers using headphones while watching movies, surfing the net, answering emails, texting through a messaging service, etc. that they come to appreciate the quiet from fellow passengers. To allow verbal cell phone usage is just one more obnoxious nail on the coffin that air travel has become for many. I think most people would say allow silent calls, NOT verbal.

  • michael anthony

    I can think of only one reason for a phone call in flight. If you are a power of attorney for someone and a doctor is calling due to a matter of life or death. In many instances, only the power of attorney can make a decision that will affect the life of that person. It would be rare, but time may be of essence. How that would be regulated, is beyond me. But no, to all other calls.

  • 42NYC

    Why can’t companies set their own policies here?? If delta wants to become “cell phone airlines” they can. People who want phone free flights won’t fly them people who want to use their phone on board will fly them and people who don’t care might fly them.

    Since it’s not a safety issue that seems a lot more sensible than an outright ban. The government shouldn’t exist to keep us away from “annoying people”

  • 42NYC

    And if we ban phones for safety issues I’m all for it. If we ban phones because they’re annoying im against it.

    I’ve been annoyed by plenty of drunks on planes but I don’t think they’re gonna stop serving booze in airports and airplanes anytime soon.

  • David___1

    Spirit wants free choice? Let’s try this again, Spirit wants to charge you a fee if you use your phone on one of their flights. There is nothing “free” about a choice on Spirit.

  • Tracy Larson

    It’s bad enough when you’re in a crowded restaurant and the person at the table next to you is yapping along the whole time on the phone. In that scenario, you can get up and move or leave. You can’t do that on a plane. I can see some tired traveler taking the red-eye home, only to be seated next to the night-owl who chatters the whole flight. Or perhaps there is the person who only uses the phone on speaker phone, so you get bombarded with both side of the conversation. Everyone here has probably experienced the person, or perhaps multiple persons, who whip out the phone the second the wheels touch the ground and starts yapping away while everyone is trying to get off the plane. Its annoying. Now imagine the whole flight being like that. We are letting those little devices run our lives. We did fine before without having phones on planes, we will survive without them.

  • Stephen0118

    If it turns out that the airlines will allow cell-phone conversations on flights, then I propose that they have multiple flights: One for cell-phone conversation free flights and one for allowing cell-phone conversations. The airlines then should have a designation on their schedule. Sure, it might be cost prohibitive for the airline, but I’d like to see how many people book the cell-phone conversation allowed flights and how many book the cell-phone conversation free flights. I think more people would book the cell-phone conversation free fights.

  • Koholaz

    We have gotten along very well since the dawn of aviation without phones. There is absolutely no reason to be trapped in a small metal tube listening to senseless blather (“Guess where I am! No, guess! I’m calling from an airplane! No, really!”) for hours on end. I once sat next to someone in the waiting area arguing with her boyfriend at the top of her voice using one expletive after another. I was never so glad to know that it would not carry on for the entire flight. People have absolutely no filters anymore. If you can go without a phone call for 8 hours at night or an hour at church or several hours at school, you can go without one for a few hours on a plane.

  • Tracy Larson

    (“Guess where I am! No, guess! I’m calling from an airplane! No, really!”) – Hah! I can hear this EXACT conversation being had many times!

  • James Dworak

    I certainly remember the days on airplanes when people smoked! Now compare that to cell phone use.
    Ps I agree no cell phone use as it would become too apparent to a passenger that they own the airplane

  • cscasi

    I might agree. However, I believe many would realize that if that were allowed, others would claim that their calls were just as important (for whatever reasons) and before long it would chaos as everyone wold be using their phones on flights.
    The part I hate is when some people get on their phones and others can clearly hear what he or she is saying three rows away.
    We had a lady who was seated with her family in a restaurant who got on her cell phone for about ten minutes and talked in a loud manner. People at other tables glared at her; to no avail. When she got up and was leaving most of the people in that section of the restaurant clapped.

  • charliebgolf

    Up until a few weeks ago I would have voted that passengers should be allowed to use their phones, but on a recent flight the person next to me signed in to the internet and apparently used Skype or another internet program to make calls. Even with my noise canceling headset on and the volume higher than I like, I still couldn’t hear anything but her talking non-stop for almost 2 hours. I’m now a firm believer that phone calls should not be allowed while the plane is in operation.

  • joycexyz

    Absolutely right! Self-important, entitled individuals will no doubt disagree. But the world is not their personal phone booth.

  • joycexyz

    That’s a stretch. But the same thing could be accomplished via an email on a Wi-Fi enabled flight.

  • joycexyz

    And I was in an elevator with a friend and an obnoxious person who just had to be on the phone. I deliberately started a conversation with my friend, to the obvious annoyance of the obnoxious person. When she demanded that we be quiet because she was on the phone, I replied that we were in a public elevator, not her personal phone booth, and ramped up the volume of my talking. Fortunately, I was not injured.

  • joycexyz

    If you’re not afraid of being injured, how about leaning in and making comments?

  • Pegtoo


  • DepartureLevel

    Why be forced to listen – just join in !! I once watched a comedy TV show where this guy sat down next to woman talking on a cell-phone. He in turn took out his cell phone and then pretended to answer, talk about or add comments to everything she was saying (loudly enough so that she could hear him) !! When she hesitated and looked at him, he also went silent – until she couldn’t stand it anymore and had to walk away. He did this with several people. Most removed themselves, others ended their calls.
    I know people won’t get up and walk away on an airplane but it would surely drive them crazy if the person(s) sitting next to them did this. Love it.

  • PsyGuy

    Absolutely positively not. If PAX are going to pollute my accessible space with their noise they can use the onboard satellite phone that cost a $25/minute or however much it costs. Under no circumstances should we allow senseless PAX to talk on their phones during a flight especially when those PAX don’t know how to modulate the volume of their voice.

    While on the subject we should also require headphones on ANY electronic device that makes noise. I don’t care if your kid forgot there earbuds I don’t want to spend 14 hours listening to Candy Crush background noise.

    AND since I’m very comfortable on my soap box, stewardess skirts should also be shorter and tighter.

    Since I’ve broached the subject and my New Year’s resolution is going to be more sensitive about gender issues, and it’s not New Years yet, no stewardesses above 30, if she hasn’t bagged a pilot or a doctor or a lawyer by then, it’s not going to happen.

  • PsyGuy

    Great what about the PAX that sitting behind the two of you who just want’s to read their magazine?

  • PsyGuy

    Further inconsiderate jerks shouldn’t be allowed to fly.

  • PsyGuy

    I’ve heard that exact conversation, and then the young woman started talking about riding boots, and other inane blather. What I find REALLY embarrassing is when they are economy passengers and they take pictures of and post the airline meal? What’s the deal its a warmed up tin of stroganoff, vegetable medley and a roll?

  • PsyGuy

    Teenagers can no longer survive without a smartphone, the RF emissions have warped there DNA. Without the constant glow of a smartphone screen they wither and die.

  • PsyGuy

    She didn’t care.

  • PsyGuy

    Snakes with phones on a plane.

  • PsyGuy

    Drunks pass out eventually, yappers just keep going and going.

  • DepartureLevel

    Yeah, of course it’s still annoying others but if those others have to listen to one person, listening to two won’t make a difference. If they allow phones to be used inflight, I can guarantee that the magazine reader will be annoyed by not only hearing the person/people in front of him but to the sides and behind him. This issue is as annoying as fake animals on planes but the people that should be making these logical and common sense decisions just can’t find it in their hearts to stop the madness for fear of “offending” our over-entitled, whiney snowflakes who by virtue of buying an airline ticket think they can decide and dictate for THEMSELVES how things should be done.

  • DepartureLevel

    If this is allowed, there will be all sorts of air-rage onboard. Flights attendants are there for safety and service (such as it is) onboard. Why now should they have to become policemen, school monitors, go-betweens on flights ?? As well it will cause a lot of fake or exaggerated customer complaints against flight attendants for trying to enforce order onboard the flights. No job should call for the wisdom of Solomon to get through the day (or a two hour flight) !!!

  • Tricia K

    Flying has already devolved into an experience akin to riding a bus. I can handle people texting on a plane, but unless the airlines want to install soundproof rooms for cell phone conversations, I’m not interested. My husband, who travels a lot for business, actually likes the excuse he has to unplug from customers while he is in the air. Cell phones in movie theaters are bad enough. We do not need to allow people to use them on a plane.

  • PsyGuy

    Well said.

  • jsn55

    Don’t the bureaucrats have real work to do? This issue has been settled previously, why are they wasting time and MY money to cause all this turmoil again? Nobody but a cretin wants to talk on a cell phone during a flight. I’m sure the airlines will handle this properly by charging a huge fee for the service so nobody uses it. But the real issue is all the tax-payer money being wasted by the useless bureaucrats in Washington who have no connection to reality.

    If I’m on an airplane when someone is talking on his cell phone, you can bet that I will go loom over his seat and stare at him until he hangs up.

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    I just have a question….How did the world conducted it’s business before cell phones, and we still survived?

  • I’m totally against the idiots talking while in the air. And I actually wish they wouldn’t talk at all – EVER, but that’s not the question. People that insist on talking on the phone inevitably do so in a volume that befits the outside of the plane, not inside, so “Just say NO” is my vote. And while we are on this subject, what happened to the BS that talking on personal cell phones would interfere with the pilot’s flight equipment? THAT was the reason they gave for putting their own phone equipment onto plane initially – that if it was THEIR equipment, they could guarantee it would not interfere with anything else on the plane. HMMMM…….

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