Most Americans are used to turning off the cell phones in flight, and calling over cell networks usually doesn’t work in the air anyway. But several airlines around the world do allow it, and provide it as a service. And for years planes had Airfones that allowed air-to-ground calling for a fee. There’s very little conflict between passengers when this is allowed.
Now Europe is preparing for 5G service on planes that would make it possible for airlines to permit use of phones in the air the way they’re used anywhere else.
The European Union this week announced it will enable the “wide-spread deployment of 5G services” on aircraft, using special ‘pico-cells’ installed on the plane to connect to satellites and then bounce those signals back down to Earth.
Certain frequencies in the 5G spectrum – potentially in the“millimetre-wave” bands, which have short range but can handle high capacity – will be designated for in-flight cell-phone connectivity.
The decision will allow airlines to let passengers make and receive phone calls, text messages and data just as they would on the ground, the European Commission said in a statement.
We’ve seen inflight calling on Qatar, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, Etihad, Virgin Atlantic, SAS, and Emirates to name a few. Amtrak allows cell phones in a confined space, too, and it’s not awful (though conversations around us can sometimes be amusing, and sometimes eye roll-inducing). They also have quiet cars where phones aren’t allowed.
US Consumers overwhelmingly say they don’t like the idea of cell phone use on planes. Most have never experienced it. Delta and United are on record saying they won’t allow this if ever given the choice.
In contrast the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection advisory committee recommended that calls be allowed, although plans to do so were scuttled. A woman might have been able to stop a suicide if she could have used her phone inflight. There are painful tragedies, and special moments repeating themselves across the country every day. How many business travelers would love to say good night to a young child they rarely see during the week? What would that extra connectedness to a parent mean to that child?
Not every call is important, but some are. If you value the connectivity, fly an airline that doesn’t ban it. If you value listening only to the noise of engines, crying babies, and passengers talking to each other then fly an airline that bans it – or get noise-reducing headphones. But letting airlines customize their product is a good thing.