Europe Preparing To Enable Cell Phone Calling On Planes

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. That’s because Europeans know how to act respectfully … Americans Don’t ; they will get in fights over it.

  2. Nooooooo…

    Noone wants to hear about your stupid 4th quarter earnings or whatever other meaningless corporate crap you talk about with Jim from sales.

  3. Passengers can stay connected while in flight using voice-conferencing applications like Zoom and other voice-conferencing computer applications. Students on different flights during a holiday or spring break can now easily keep in touch.

  4. No. NO. NOOOOO. Absolutely not. Loud Cell Phone Talker Syndrome is the true travel pandemic in airports, lounges, etc People are so grossly inconsiderate it will absolutely lead to altercations on board.

  5. I’ve heard plenty of passengers in Delta One business-class suites with the door closed on Skype or FaceTime calls.

  6. Do we seriously think that even half of cell phone users will care about the people around them trying to sleep on a red-eye? And they will feel they HAVE to talk loud to be heard above the generic airplane noise.

  7. Airplane seats are much closer together than on trains and there is no common space that airline passengers can go to talk.
    Delta and United got it right. The cost to the overall customer experience is far worse than the benefit to a few.
    And, no, US airlines do not allow internet based voice applications.
    Delta and a few other airlines have worldwide texting.
    The longest flights in the world are 17-18 hours long; if you need to talk more often than that, there are connecting options available.

  8. After being forced to listen to countless obnoxious cell phone calls in lounges, I can’t wait to be captive to them in the air. In lounges, the worst offenders are people on business calls. Now we may have to put up with the “Joe Tarmacs” for an entire flight.

  9. @Bob, maybe the Danes, Swedes, and other Nordics will handle it, but there’s no chance flights to Italy and Spain will be “considerate”. Every time I’m in Italy, I’m struck by how many normal conversations really sound like screaming matches to untrained ears. It’s a feature, not a bug.

  10. Seriously Gary? You want cell phone conversations on planes?

    You’ve truly lost it.

    Nothing about cell phone conversations in flight is good. Nothing.

  11. Imagine sitting in your seat on a trans-Atlantic flight prior to the door closing. Imagine the person in the seat behind you somewhat weeping while talking with their significant other about their troubled relationship. When the “door closing” announcement is made, the person says, “They are closing the door. I gotta go.” True story. Now imagine that conversation continuing for another seven hours.

    I’ve also enjoyed Bob’s scenario of the “call to Jim in sales about third quarter results.”

  12. @Tim Dunn: “And, no, US airlines do not allow internet based voice applications.
    Delta and a few other airlines have worldwide texting.”

    US Airlines may not allow internet-based voice applications. But US airlines do not block access to voice applications when you connect to your office using a VPN, then launch a voice application using remote desktop access. So now chatty college students can talk with all their littermates while en route to their next resort destination. Happy dialing.

  13. If I am ever so unfortunate as to board an airplane that allows cell phones, I’ll blast some music to cover the endless yapping that might result. There’s no positive in allowing cell phone conversations whatsoever, it’s all negative and beyond stupid.

  14. Worst. Idea. Ever. No, it is NOT a good thing to let airlines customize their annoyances. Yeah fine there’s always the corner case making up a plot for a Hallmark movie. Whatever! The ban on all calls should remain in place. Even the concept of wifi really isn’t needed. Give a good in-flight entertainment system and that’s really all that is needed. Some people say they NEED to be connected. No they don’t. As a business traveler it is the one place I can get away from everyone and shut completely off. Phone calls on planes? Here in the states? Many people only know how to use a speaker phone. Facetime calls will be blasting all over the place. Gosh this is giving me PTSD of the old Nextel days where the chirp and shouting out of ‘walkie-talkie’ was everywhere. Don’t bring that. Enable phone calls on planes will do just that. The cabin is far too small and people here have overall no decency at all so it won’t be used wisely. This is more cabin fights ready to go.

  15. I think if it happens to me, I’ll just inject myself into their conversation very loudly. Business call? I’ll start telling them “that sounds like a bad idea, tell them to……”. Personal call? I’ll comment out loud about everything they say…

    It may be a little dangerous for the personal calls, as they may try to actually share their life story with you. But business callers will hate it.

  16. I do Zoom all the time aboard flights, so it does work. Airlines charge a premium fee for streaming audio/video. The bottom line is money, if airlines can make money out of letting people call, they will do it.

  17. Some people have strange addictions. My strange addiction is that whenever Samsung releases a new version of their earbuds, I have to get a pair. I now have six pairs of earbuds, all of which I carry with me on flights and all of which have good noise cancellation. This type of thing is the reason why.

  18. I once heard a woman in phone conversation with the plane on the tarmac discussing someone’s decision to get an abortion or not. After she hung up, i turned around and said, “I hope she does the right thing.” She was horrified and thought I was so rude. I just wanted her to know: people can hear you! (I didn’t say what I thought was the “right thing.”)

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