Want a Cell-Phone-Free Flight? You May Have to Pay Extra for It.

Airlines are opposing a ban on in-flight cell-phone calls — and they could make you pay for the right to travel in peace.

National Journal
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Alex Brown
Aug. 7, 2014, 1 a.m.

Pas­sen­gers have pub­licly pined for a ban on in-flight cell-phone calls, and they may soon get their wish: The Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment an­nounced last week it plans to make the skies a no-call zone.

But the air­line in­dustry is push­ing back, with car­ri­ers say­ing they de­serve the right to set their own phone policies, par­tic­u­larly now that fed­er­al au­thor­it­ies say phones won’t in­ter­fere with cell towers on the ground.

And in set­ting those policies, air­lines could be on the verge of a cash cow: Giv­en the free­dom to find their own solu­tions, some air­lines say they might look at op­tions like phone booths or quiet zones sim­il­ar to what some rail­roads cur­rently of­fer. Jet­Blue, for in­stance, is con­sid­er­ing a sep­ar­ate area for pas­sen­gers who want to use their phones.

Oth­er air­lines have con­sidered sec­tions sim­il­ar to the “quiet cars” offered on trains. It’s not hard to ima­gine air­lines pitch­ing them­selves as “call-free” or “al­ways con­nec­ted” — with an ad­ded charge for each.

Say you need to make an emer­gency call mid-flight (the DOT’s plan will still al­low you to con­nect to the out­side world with tex­ting and data). You might have to make your way to an­oth­er sec­tion of the plane, wait in line, and then pay to ac­cess a call­ing area.

Or per­haps you’re on an air­line that of­fers un­res­tric­ted call­ing and just don’t want to be bothered. For a con­veni­ence charge, you can pay in ad­vance for a quiet seat — and hope your neigh­bors ob­serve the rules.

These charges are all hy­po­thet­ic­al at the mo­ment, but some pas­sen­gers have already said they’d pay up. Hol­i­day trav­el­ers told Na­tion­al Journ­al last year they’d be will­ing to pay up­wards of hun­dreds of dol­lars to use their phones — or avoid those who do. One fli­er said he’d pay $300 to avoid sit­ting next to mo­bile chat­ter­boxes. Oth­er busi­ness trav­el­ers said they’d pay to stay con­nec­ted in the air.

“If the cur­rent air­line en­vir­on­ment has taught us any­thing, it’s that air­lines are not afraid to charge a fee for everything,” said Erik Hansen of the U.S. Travel As­so­ci­ation, a net­work of travel and tour­ism com­pan­ies. “It’s not out of the realm of pos­sib­il­ity.”

Corey Cald­well, a spokes­wo­man for the As­so­ci­ation of Flight At­tend­ants, agreed. “The an­cil­lary rev­en­ue stream is very im­port­ant in the fin­ances of our avi­ation in­dustry,” she said. “It’s not sur­pris­ing that air­lines are try­ing to think of ways to help boost rev­en­ue, and I think that’s just one of them.”

Fees or not, air­line de­fend­ers say it’s an over­step to ban calls just be­cause they’re an­noy­ing. “There’s no good reas­on to ban it from a tech­no­lo­gic­al per­spect­ive,” said Tim Far­rar, a con­sult­ant who mon­it­ors the is­sue. “It’s sort of pan­der­ing — we can do something that pas­sen­gers ap­pear to want.”

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion voted to con­sider a pro­pos­al in Decem­ber to over­turn its long-stand­ing ban, say­ing in­ter­fer­ence con­cerns were no longer an is­sue. “We are not the Fed­er­al Cour­tesy Com­mis­sion,” Chair­man Tom Wheel­er said at the time, while not­ing DOT could still is­sue a ban of its own.

Hansen says it’s more than a cour­tesy is­sue. “There are some ser­i­ous safety con­cerns over wheth­er in-flight calls could pro­voke cab­in rage,” he said. “What we can’t do is just re­flex­ively al­low calls to hap­pen on planes and think that there will be no un­in­ten­ded con­sequences.”

And pas­sen­gers won’t be the only ones who suf­fer, ad­ded Cald­well. “When there is an is­sue at 35,000 feet, there’s only a cer­tain amount of things that flight at­tend­ants can do to de-es­cal­ate a situ­ation and con­tain it,” she said. “When people are talk­ing on their cell phones and cre­at­ing a dis­turb­ance in the cab­in, flight at­tend­ants are then dis­trac­ted from their role as first re­spon­der.”

Far­rar thinks these fears are over­blown. Air­lines would have to re­work plane in­fra­struc­ture to make calls hap­pen in the first place, and no car­ri­er would al­low calls for long if cus­tom­ers took their busi­ness else­where. “Air­lines will find their own solu­tions and pas­sen­gers will choose based on what mat­ters to them,” he said.

He also ex­pressed con­cern that in­ter­na­tion­al flights, on which calls are al­lowed, could face con­fu­sion when en­ter­ing U.S. air­space. Tex­ting and data, which are not in­cluded in the ban, could also get mixed up in the is­sue if stand­ards are un­clear.

A pair of air­line ad­vocacy groups did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

COR­REC­TION: This art­icle has been up­dated to cla­ri­fy that the FCC has not yet form­ally lif­ted its ban on us­ing cell phones on planes.