Companies Fight For Cell Phone Use on Planes
Passengers on Emirates Air flights between Dubai and London can now call home on their cell phones from thousands of miles up in the air. The European Union has lifted restrictions for airline cell phone use, opening the door for passengers to soon use their Blackberries and other smart phones during flight.
Yet on flights in the U.S. and connecting to the U.S., cell phone calls, which are already banned, may soon be outlawed by the Hang Up Act, now up for vote before the House. The bill, pushed by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), would make it illegal to talk over cell phones or over Voice over Internet Protocol applications like Skype during flights.
Providers of airplane cell phone services traveled to Washington D.C. this week to try to convince lawmakers to knock the bill down. They argue that it is unnecessary and based on "unbalanced" information.
OnAir and AeroMobile, two competing European-based airline cell phone service providers, say the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration already ban the practice so a law would be overkill, creating another regulatory roadblock in their fight to open up the United States to the technology.
The companies sat down with me this morning to state their case, which faces a long uphill battle in Washington. First, they have to fight down the bill that passed the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last July. Then the companies have to convince regulators at the FCC and FAA to overturn their rules that prohibit cell phone use on planes. In March 2007, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin rejected a proposal to lift the agency's ban, saying there was evidence in-air calls could interfere with calls made on the ground (an argument OnAir and AeroMobile dispute).
The airlines, meanwhile, would be cautious to implement technology that could, in the words of proponents of the bill, fuel "air rage" with passengers battling over voice calls in cramped quarters.
"Imagine the convenience of using your cell phone on a long flight, to send and receive emails on your Blackberry," said David Coiley, a vice president of U.K.-based AeroMobile. He argued that the convenience of such technology and the revenues airlines could generate by offering cell phone service would outweigh the annoyance some passengers may feel while listening to their neighbor talk on the phone all flight.
"Where are they going to stop? Alcohol and smelly food?" he said.
September 17, 2008; 12:59 PM ET
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