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The Internet-connected world could get even more connected as federal aviation officials are considering rules on whether fliers should, or shouldn’t, make Wi-Fi-based calls.
The US Department of Transportation announced Thursday it was seeking public comment on the topic.
It is asking the public to ponder whether a rule should demand that airlines, if they offer potential phone service, should provide advance notice to fliers (perhaps at the time of ticket purchase). Regulators also want public input on whether in-flight Wi-Fi calling should be banned outright.
“Consumers deserve to have clear and accurate information about whether an airline permits voice calls before they purchase a ticket and board the aircraft,” US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “Today’s proposal will ensure that air travelers are not unwillingly exposed to voice calls, as many of them are troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight.”
The Federal Communications Commission bars fliers from making cellphone calls in flight, but not Wi-Fi calls. Wi-Fi calling is already technically feasible with on-board Wi-Fi services such as Gogo and ViaSat, since many Android and Apple mobile phones can make telephone calls with a Wi-Fi signal. What’s more, there are a ton of apps like Skype and Google Voice that make Wi-Fi calling possible. However, US carriers have rules, or technology, prohibiting Wi-Fi-based calling even though some passengers may currently skirt those rules.
“The Department is also seeking comment on whether disclosure is sufficient or whether it should simply ban voice calls on flights within, to, or from the United States,” the agency said. Members of the public have 60 days to make a comment.
The idea of making phone calls aboard an airplane is controversial. Most other transportation venues—like trains, buses, and subways—allow them.
But airplanes are seemingly different.
The Transportation Department first started taking public comment on the overall issue of in-flight phone calls two years ago, and many of the comments were negative.
But Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi-based calling, have become ubiquitous under today’s technology.
So federal regulators are taking a proactive position and looking to clarify onboard phone-calling rules that weren’t historically part of the equation: a calling ban was originally based on fears that cell-based calls could interfere with a plane’s flight instruments. What’s more, airlines in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are now offering fliers voice communication services.
Some US airlines are offering phone service to premium customers, too.
In response, the Transportation Department is suggesting that, at a minimum, consumers have a right to know if Wi-Fi calling would be allowed on a passenger’s particular flight.
The agency believes that many fliers don’t want to be aboard a plane with everybody talking on their phones.
According to the DOT:
Under this proposal, disclosure about voice calls being permitted on a flight is required from the beginning of the process.
The Department believes that consumers would be unfairly surprised and harmed if they learned only after the purchase of a ticket (or, worse, after boarding the aircraft) that the carrier permits voice calls on its flights.
If voice calls are allowed on a flight, the DOT proposal requires disclosure the first time that flight is offered or identified to a consumer. No disclosure is required if the flight does not allow voice calls.
Continental said it would “carefully evaluate the views of our customers and crew members on this topic.” Delta and JetBlue have said they would continue to prohibit calls no matter what the Department of Transportation decides, according to The Wall Street Journal.
American Airlines offers first and business class passengers onboard satellite phone service. United said it bars VoIP calling, as does Southwest.
The 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants opposes in-flight calling.
“Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe. Many polls and surveys conducted over the years find that a vast majority of the traveling public wants to keep the ban on voice calls in the aircraft cabin,” the union said. What’s more, many US lawmakers said in-flight calling is dangerous and annoying, and it is “impossible for passengers to remove themselves from loud or unwanted conversations and disputes.”
The Transportation Department did not say what the time frame would be for new in-flight calling rules.