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Calling On The Plane

I don't know what the big debate is about when it comes to making calls from airplanes. USA Today and other media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal all covered what is a religious like debate between the FAA, the FTC and various factions in air travel over the viability, technical capability and passenger disturbance factors surrounding calls while flying.

For starters, it's obvious most of the reporters never flew when we had GTE Airfone in existence. There handsets were scattered two for every three seats or so, and you swiped a credit card or used an account code to make or even eventually receive calls. In its heyday GTE  even sold an annual plan for about $1000 a year, paid in advance that provided for unlimited calling, something I subscribed to and used more for data and faxing than for calls as I was flying coast to coast at least twice a month then.

During that era, no one complained to their seatmate for talking on the phone as many of the calls were short, brief and more to reply to a satellite text page that required a bit more detail than the number of characters on them (these reporters likely never had pagers either or forget about them.) The in flight phones were good for things like calling about a flight delay, making a change to transportation, cancelling a hotel room because the flight was being diverted or booking a hotel or rental car when that would happen, or just simply checking in with the office after a five or six hour coast to coast flight as back then, there wasn't Wi-Fi.

In today's era, calling will need some guidelines. Here are some from someone who remembers those days when it wasn't prevented:

  1. No calls before 7 AM or after 11 PM based on take off time zone. Let's respect the fact the some people may want to sleep
  2. No calls before 7 AM based on the local time zone of where the plane is heading. 
  3. No Call Rows-in the past we had smoking and no-smoking sections. Let's do the same with the phones in coach.
  4. Strangling the idiot who is talking non-stop to their seat mate is also permitted if someone wants to do that to the person talking over a Wi-Fi. Otherwise, what's the difference.
  5. Use of foul language is not permitted. The use of it will allow the Flight Attendant to take away your devices for the duration of the flight.

In reality, an in flight phone call isn't any worse than Big Time Bob telling First Time Betty all that she needs to know about flying, where she's going as he's trying to impress her. The same goes for the non-stop yackers on red-eyes who find it necessary to chat when the person in front or behind them is trying to sleep. 

At the end of the day, this all comes down to common sense. As someone who has made calls from aboard planes in the past and even with current technology, it's not the holy war that some are trying to make it.


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Andy Abramson


You bring up some good points and I agree with you about "public voice" vs. "private voice" and hear it too often. The best suggestion though is the one sided call and reply with text. I've actually done that, but it's a generational appreciated approach.

Noise cancelling headphones and cones of silence may be the real answer, with each person "noised" out so no one hears them.

Brad Templeton

There are several reasons why it's worse than the already annoying chatty seatmates. Tests have shown humans have far less tolerance for hearing only one side of a conversation. It's way more annoying. (With chatty seatmates, sometimes they are at such different volumes that you get the same effect and annoyance.)

Secondly, when in a loud environment, people tend to yell into their cell phones. They don't realize they are doing it. The reality is the phone picks you up even if you speak very quietly. I believe phones should actually come with a built in feature that if you are talking much more loudly than it needs to get good SNR, it bleeps in your ear to quiet you down. Until we have that, no calls on the damned plane.

Indeed, no long conversations. You are crammed with other people. You are not in a meeting room. Glad you are flying together but have your chat before or after the flight or learn to keep it down. That includes me -- we all have this issue that if the environment is loud, we get louder. Even flight attendants. The main reason not to get the seat near the galley isn't the sound of the work. It's the two FAs who sit down to have a nice chat.

In today's world of IM, there is little reason to phone anyway. Problem is, some of the people you want to phone (mostly businesses) don't let you text or IM. How about a mode on the phone that does one way audio (you can hear the other side) but you have to type, and it does text to speech with the contact centers. Cuts bandwidth too. Of course, if we can do that, we could do the thing that makes you take your voice to a whisper. Yes, the phone can hear you just fine with your quietest voice. Then we're OK for a short call if you can do that.

Alternately, the app could require all calls be on speakerphone, but with the other person's voice set to the same volume as yours. That will stop the long calls, the private business calls, the lovey-dovey conversations. This is not just a silly suggestion -- as I said, studies show that hearing only one side is much more annoying than hearing both, and you would also be much more conscious of your intrusion if you hear both.

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