A panel of smartphone experts and aviation authorities meet to discuss not approving calls on planes, as some travellers clamour for it
Are cell phone calls on airplane flights inevitable?
Will passengers talk on their smartphones while they fly?
On Wednesday a panel of smartphone experts, featuring Apple’s director of iPhone engineering and a professor at New York University, will discuss the future of cell phone calls in planes, as some airline passengers clamour for it.
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In 2014 the United States’ Department of Transportation approved live, in-flight calls on planes that would not be allowed to fly longer than 3,000 miles, or about 4,500km, as long as the conversations are occurring below 10,000 feet (3,048 metres). The rule will expire on 31 December 2016, meaning most flights could be set to allow passengers to talk while in flight in 2017.
The department’s announcement of the expiration date gave airlines 10 months to decide whether to enable cellphone use in the cabin.
On Wednesday, all three major US airlines are taking steps to implement either the airline-provided in-flight Wi-Fi systems or the Boeing/US air marshal service’s secure, wireless connection. But with 2015 records of lacklustre passenger traffic, some fear the push may not happen in time.
“Of course, with 21st century technology we can do anything we want, but that is not a perfect solution,” said Lynn Laverty Hayes, public affairs manager at Delta Air Lines Inc, the top airline in the US.
US airlines have not said how many passengers have lobbied their boards to allow in-flight calls. “We don’t comment on specific customer service issues,” Delta said.
Apple has a policy of not commenting on Apple products, said spokeswoman Christina Nish.
New York University professor Genevieve Bell will take part in the panel at Georgetown University Law Center at a press conference and a question-and-answer session scheduled to start at 4pm EST. Bell is a graduate of the Columbia University and has taught at Georgetown University.
Bell, who has been researching aviation issues for years, told the Guardian that any date to begin allowing cellphone calls is too far out and represents an unsatisfactory compromise.
“As soon as we unlock the doors that are locked right now and make them available to more people, we are going to see a proliferation of bad behavior on board flights,” she said.
Nish said that Apple builds in security features such as end-to-end encryption and end-to-end packet switching to protect the data transmitted by the iPhone.
It will be difficult to discourage passengers from pulling out their smartphones while flying, Bell said. For airlines, “it would be a nightmare in terms of ramp management and in terms of nuisance calls,” she said.
Among the concerns is the potential for unwanted sexual contact. The flight attendant union says that the rules prohibiting in-flight phone calls must be followed. In 2010 flight attendants won a vote on a measure to ban sex in the air, but its passage was cancelled two years later, after “nearly a year of intense lobbying by members of Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration, and several pilot groups and airline groups,” according to the Institute of Flight Attendants.
The FAA is charged with regulating airport passenger operations, as well as aviation safety, and does not have the authority to prohibit in-flight calls. It prefers not to comment on the issue because it wants to avoid the appearance of encouraging passengers to chat up strangers.
Last month FAA administrator Michael Huerta said his agency was “under no illusions” about the talk time situation. “The FAA’s role in this is to ensure that this conversation works well for everyone in the cabin and to address any emerging technology that could impact safety,” he said.
The FAA is part of DOT, and both employ regulators.
According to Laverty Hayes, passengers often seek waivers for rules on social media content on planes and social media control board calls. But without widespread use of in-flight Wi-Fi, cellphones are the only options that can be used for calls now.
She said passengers are likely to be disinterested in such calls even if Wi-Fi is enabled. She expressed confidence that “if airline employees or government officials decide that they are serious about enforcing the regulation, passengers won’t fall for that trick.”
• This article was amended on 20 February to correctly date the expiration of the wireless provision in airplane phones