Are You Ready for Inflight Cell Phone Use to Come to US Airlines?

Several days ago I reported that the inflight use of 3G and 4G mobile data plans. This follows US approval of gate-to-gate use of electronics.

Lifting the Department of Transportation’s ban on electronics did not allow for the inflight use of a phone’s cellular or data connectivity. That ban was under the authority of the FCC.

Now it turns out that the FCC is considering lifting its ban, which would then leave it up to individual airlines whether or not to allow cell phones onboard — for data and for voice.

If the Government Allows Inflight Cell Phone Use, What Would Happen?

Does this mean you’re going to have to listen to your bloviating seatmate talking about the big deal they’re trying to close? or talking to their paramour?

That’s the awful future that many flyers fear. But it could also mean the chance to say last words to the dying relative’s bedside you’re flying to be next to, but are just a few hours too late — or to hear a child’s first words while checking in at home.

Clearly there’s upsides to communication at the same time there’s a cost to solitude.

How will the airlines handle this?

Different airlines will adopt different rules, to gain competitive advantage and appeal to customers in different ways, and if there’s enough demand on one side a uniformity may develop.

For now, Delta has already said no way, no how. JetBlue is more likely to accommodate … but probably do it in a way similar to Amtrak which offers quiet cars.

And how much use would this get? Airfones are gone from many planes because they simply weren’t used, of course those were more expensive. But text is replacing voice, and may be especially attractive in the skies since reception isn’t often great up in the air anyway (airlines could install technology to relay cell signals and improve this).

Will Onboard Cell Phone Use Actually Happen?

FCC ‘consideration’ of lifting the ban is not the same as actually lifting it.
Much lobbying will ensue. Cell phone providers might have something to say about this, they see it as costly to them. Many consumer groups will object.

The FCC tried to do this once before, nearly a decade ago, and that got shot down

For now, we have a hearing to be followed by a proposed rulemaking and a comment period all before getting to a final rule. Many things can happen between now and then, and it’s months away at the earliest.

Me, I’d just like not to have to turn off my cell phone’s data during taxi and takeoff, gotta get those last emails out before I switch to inflight internet!


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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. Here’s my feeling (since you asked). I think it’s ludicrous to try to ban someone from talking on the phone because of the noise because:

    Why is this different from banning talking to the person next to you?

    I am also a practical person, and understand that some people seem to insist on speaking more loudly into the phone than they do while talking to the person next to them. But some people don’t. Some people (I like to think this includes me) speak in a normal tone on the phone (unless I’m trying to use my car’s bluetooth, of course). Then there are some people who talk ridiculously loudly to the person next to them.

    I don’t hear the outcry of people asking for loud talkers to be muzzled.

    I do think talking on the phone should be allowed on planes, but I also think there should be some education about how to speak normally into the phone.

  2. nsx: Trains and club lounges already have these sections. I’m okay with them because they are mostly called “quiet sections”, which would include loud phone talking and loud person-to-person talking. I do have a problem (consistent with my post above) with the ones that specify “no-phone” section.

  3. Around here, Bay Area, cell phones use is discouraged on commuter busses. The good people will shut you down real fast if not descrete. Interestingly, passing through ORD a fella was having a loud coversation on the phone on the inter terminal train and a fellow passenger told him to pipe down “we don’t need to hear this”. I jave noticed on TATL flights cabins more often than not are kept dark even during a day time flight. I wonder how a conversation would be received if folks around are sleeping.

  4. I vote for data and text, but against phone use. Cell phones (for some reason I’ve never understood) don’t let you hear your own voice through the earpiece the way land lines do. This encourages the loud talking mentioned above, which is exacerbated by the roar of a plane.

    I remember what it was like when airphones were around for the few who could afford to use them. Those conversations megaphoned their way into the confined space of my seat. Multiply that noise by the capacity of a cabin, and imagine how distressing and chaotic an average flight (where there is no place to escape) could be.

  5. Even worse than phone-talkers are the awful, despicable people who let their phones audibly ring while in public places. If we allow inflight cell phone usage, the whole plane will quickly become a nonstop audio collage of alarm bells and song snippets. Agony.

    I honestly might stop flying.

  6. Today’s passengers can’t politely share an armrest or an overhead bin or having a crying baby four rows away. Having a loud phone conversation in this mix will be a chaotic.

  7. “But it could also mean the chance to say last words to the dying relative’s bedside you’re flying to be next to, but are just a few hours too late — or to hear a child’s first words while checking in at home.”

    Wow. Way to reducto ad absurdum the shit out of that one

  8. Good Lord, NO.

    Last week, I took a long weekend to FL to get away from the cold of Maine and chose a truly top end resort hotel with lavish surroundings and a glorious massive pool as my home away from home. To my utter dismay, each day, I found myself surrounded by folks who would plop down in their chaise lounges and immediately grab their iPhones and call someone to simply “gab.”

    These were no 3 minute “check in” calls. No sirree. These calls went on for 20, 30, 45 minutes or more! Loud, selfish idiots who were talking in a voice loud enough to echo off of any nearby surface. HORRIFIC!

    And, yes, I moved. Time and time and time again, but no escape. The reality is that about a third of our population is simply incredibly rude and is unaware of their effects on their fellow human beings. I’m convinced that, frankly, they don’t care, either.

    I can appreciate the viewpoint that it makes sense in 2013 for consumers to be able to use a cell phone from flights at 35K feet, but I’ll fight their right to do it every step of the way.

    I am absolutely convinced that — as with so many other things — a handful will ruin it for the rest of us.

  9. Why does having voice and data suddenly open up this can of worms? With inflight wifi, anyone could have been making Skype or VoIP calls for years.

  10. Thoughts:

    1) I read today at SWA is going to do wifi from takeoff to landing. So there you go with the “need for data while taking off.” Doesn’t that solve it?

    2) How does it work multi-carrier across the satellite system? All bands, all systems, minutes off your plan / data but yet carried over satellite owned by someone else? The mind reels. What is the additional cost? God I hope it’s a lot!

    3) I commute a lot and talk to my kids a lot on my cell phone. It’s nearly impossible in a car, and I can only imagine how loud you’d have to yell in a plane. Who here doesn’t have noise canceling headphones? Because it’s really GD loud in an airplane, and hard to hear. The air phones sucked, they were last-resort-only. Will this be the same?

    Anyway, this is just completely a terrible idea. I had to listen to some fat bastard today spend 15 minutes telling everyone how he (a) flies for a living and (b) we were all doomed because we were flying an airbus, and doesn’t everyone know they are flying death traps compared to good ol’ American Boeing. The only saving grace was the plane taking off, and it thank god drowned him out until we landed. If he had a cell phone so help me god I doubt he’d have shut up for a second.

  11. A few rules on this – at least.

    1) All phones must be on vibrate only.
    2) If the FA comes by for a drink order they will pass the person by if they don’t immediately stop long enough to order.
    3) If you’re talking too loud beside me I’ll talk equally as loud even if I’m not on my cell.

    Regarding smoking areas in the olden days. As I recall the smoke didn’t stay put. Most likely the it’s the same with noise.

  12. Also, final thought: explain to me how quiet sections work in this day and age of premium seating? United is going to split up economy plus into “assholes who talk a lot” and “quiet”? Give me a break. This works on Amtrak, yes. Smoking and non-smoking? Sure, I remember that when I was a kid. That was two parts of economy, and it worked so well? Oh wait, barely at all.

    Anyway, I’m sure this will eventually happen and there will be winners (a-holes, cell phone companies, satellite providers, airlines) and losers (people who are not a-holes, current wifi providers). Unfortunately I will be one of the losers.

    At the end of the day, most people are simply inconsiderate in public. Movie theaters would like nothing better than to jam cell phone signals, because it would increase their business (it is the number 1 reason people choose to not go to the theater). But airline passengers, they’re much different? Not!

  13. All I can say is Hell no! Sure, not being able to use a cell phone when flying can be an inconvenience, however I’ve come to appreciate the silence of no cell phone conversations going on while flying. I’d hate for that to change.

  14. I can’t wait to take a cell phone from my next door neighbor and beat them senseless………..

  15. It’s a non issue. None of you guys ever take a bus or public transport lately? People don’t talk. They text. They have no desire for you to listen in on their private business any more than you desire to hear it. You may get one or two ignorant old people stuck in the stone age who still talk but mostly you are going to be amused at how QUIET people are now that they can text to distant people instead of yapping to present people.

  16. @Gary, some airlines will let you use GSM data aboard US flights but will block the “voice” aspect of GSM. Your seatmates will be able to text to their hearts desire, but will not be able to make/receive voice calls. However, it is still possible to use VOIP calls (skype and facetime) over in-flight wifi until the airlines block data to those services.

  17. I sure hope this doesn’t happen. But if it does, it’ll be self-policing. I was in a lounge a while ago and some guy sat down right beside me carrying on a loud business meeting.

    I waited a second, in case he was almost done, and when he continued I picked up my phone and loudly observed that I was in the lounge and a FAT DRUNK had just sat down beside me. I thought the guy was going to have a heart attack as he raced off to another part of the lounge.

  18. I love “bloviating seatmate”. Incidentally, there’s an excellent episode of “Louis” with a noisy dude talking on his cell phone as he boards a tiny regional flight. Irritated by this, Louis begins loudly answering the questions asked by the cell phone guy: “Yeah, I do think the Jets will win” etc. Worth seeking out.

  19. A general comment. Can you please again do listing of credit card offerings by card companies. You did this around June of this year. I like such listings as they are more complete than just your favorites. I think that the links for cards that you do not pitch so much as favorites can be very valuable to long time fans.

  20. This is a non-issue. In the days of GTE Airfones at every seat, very few people were making calls. I fly Emirates and Etihad a lot and many of their planes now have onboard cell phone service (and have long had onboard satellite phone service). Hardly anyone makes calls here either. Why? The same reason the Airfones were unpopular: cost. For the most part, the price for these calls on a per-minute basis remains expensive. Also, a lot of people seem to value their airplane time as kind of down time.

  21. Has anyone here actually tried to use your phone in flight? I have (since I was curious) and could never get a signal. Think about it – cell phone towers are designed to spread their signal over as wide of an area as possible horizontally, why would they care about broadcasting the signal upwards? Now if they add special equipment aboard the planes to link you to satellites (as I have heard a few airlines have done), but that is extra cost to the airline and expensive for the passenger to use. Therefore I don’t think this is a big deal.

  22. @peachfront “They have no desire for you to listen in on their private business…” That is not really true. Many of those who talk the loudest on cell phones in public places are trying to show everyone that they are more important than the rest of us.

    Texting would be ok, but talking on cell phones – no way.

  23. We have all survived for ever without being able to communicate when in the air. Email and texting should be plenty to stay in touch.

  24. Sent out an e-mail to the FCC Chairman today. Everybody needs to do this if they are against this. This should be NO, NO, NO, NO and NO. I believe that “let the battles begin”. People today are ignorant, have no regard with anyone else. There will be problems. Ringing of phones, loudness, sleeping or trying to get work done in your set will be impossible.
    Recently has a guy (foreign) in the Business Lounge in Frankfort (which was packed) having a loud conversation with his phone SPEAKER ON!

  25. I am looking forward to this. Getting extremely sick & tired of having to shut OFF two phones pre-flight, then back ON at end of first leg, then OFF for second leg, then ON, then OFF for 3rd leg, then ON. Ridiculously unnecessary. Also, I’d much rather have the person next to me talking on their phone, than yabbering at ME! I don’t care who talks to who on the plane…just please quit trying to converse with me, especially when you see I have my computer out. Most of you guys are combining the cellphone issue during take-off with a noise issue. They are two separate issues.

  26. Not everyone is going to want you listening in on them chatting with their boyfriend mid flight. Their solution? Go sit in the bathroom for 30 minutes for a little cell phone privacy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *