Carl Biersack, executive director of the Inflight PassengerCommunications Coalition (which includes stakeholders AeroMobile and OnAir), has written an opinion piece about the USA’s farcical ban on the in-flight use of cell phones (you know, those things we can’t live without, even on a night out on the town).
The whole piece, which is now running on mysanantonio.com deserves repeating, so here it is in full.
The introduction of every new technology inevitably brings changes in etiquette and behavior. When the automobile was first introduced there were some who protested that this new “horseless” carriage, in the hands of a rude or inattentive driver, would cause mayhem on the roads. A century later, the positive impact the automobile has had on our economy cannot be questioned, rude drivers notwithstanding.
Cellular communications are very much the same — they get us where we need to go. These days, our cell phones have become as ubiquitous in our daily lives as our cars. In fact, one can now safely make a cell phone call around the world on commercial flights–but not yet in the U.S. If a proposed ban on inflight wireless voice communications and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) passes Congress this year, the U.S. may never join the rest of the globe.
Inflight wireless voice service is now available on 4 of the 5 continents and is provided by 20 international air carriers. The service has been approved for use in 52 nations serving 240 destinations by the equivalents of our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Over 1.5 million passengers on 12,000 flights per month, are on a commercial aircraft with inflight voice communications and there has not been one reported incident or problem.
The introduction everywhere else in the world of in-flight voice services has been warmly welcomed and smoothly implemented. Why then is it that in U.S. airspace critics of the service predict nothing short of the apocalypse? Is it because people and flight crews from other countries are simply more polite than Americans?
Hardly. The service has been deployed without drama because foreign airlines have developed management practices to ensure that use of the service is not disruptive. For example, the service may be remotely turned on and off by the crew at any time and for any reason. It is common on overnight flights that the service is turned off when the lights are dimmed so passengers can go to sleep.
There are other reasons why voice in overseas skies has been used widely without incident. Generally a limited number of lines are available at any one time regardless of the size of the aircraft because of bandwidth limitations. In addition, the actual experience of voice service inflight is demonstrating that there is no nuisance issue: to quote a top UK-based travel journalist, Charles Starmer-Smith, reporting in The Daily Telegraph “Voices do not travel as far as many feared and, indeed, were hard to hear above the background noise in the cabin.”
The service is completely safe and secure. The companies which provide the satellite–based infrastructure for wireless voice on aircraft have gone through exhaustive safety and security procedures to ensure that the signals do not interfere with other electronic equipment on the aircraft or the terrestrial wireless systems.
The wireless inflight voice service represents a substantial revenue stream for American firms and their workers by creating and sustaining high tech jobs from California to Alabama. Wireless connectivity in the air represents a $1 billion dollar a year missed opportunity for the United States.
Lastly, the proposed ban is simply bad policy. It allows older technology in the form of seatback phones to remain as the only voice communication option for passengers and creates an unenforceable provision on new technology by banning VOIP. This despite the fact that there is no effective way to prevent VOIP calls short of turning flight crews into Laptop Cops.
It is also important to remember that a regulatory restriction currently exists regarding the use of wireless voice communications on U.S. commercial aircraft.
Today, an airline operating in the United States would need to apply to both the FAA and FCC, in accordance with a public process, before equipping its aircraft with the technology. This process would allow stakeholders and experts to provide input, insight and real world applications/usages to regulatory authorities. This was an opportunity that was not afforded anyone when the House unilaterally inserted the ban into their FAA legislation earlier this year without any hearing or comments.
Fortunately, the United States Senate recently introduced and reported its FAA bill and there is no ban language in their bill. Hopefully, this will remain the case when the House and Senate reconcile their bills later this year. Cooler heads and common sense policies from Congress would allow the regulatory experts, and the people, to decide how America will move ahead and at last join the rest of the globe.