Genie is out of bottle on airborne phones

About a decade ago, when I used to commute by train to work in the city from the country, I got to experience first hand what travellers have long known: the idea of having to listen to other people's mobile phone calls leaves a lot to be desired.

First, there's the disconnect when private conversations become public in real time: I'm not remotely interested in the business deal being discussed by a fat bloke in a suit with one of his suppliers or giggly girlfriends discussing last night's after-work drinks. Or a woman discussing business and blokes chewing the fat.

Nevertheless, when airlines worked out, about two decades ago, they could use a satellite signal to enable intercontinental passengers to call out to anywhere in the world from a purpose-built phone built into the armrest of their seat, it seemed like the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But, with calling rates starting at around $US10 a minute, phones in planes have been less than successful with tiny passenger takeup rates that hardly justify the cost of installing the gear.

But that was before the digital electronic revolution really began.

About a month ago, the dam wall broke when the US Federal Aviation Administration announced that aviation's caution about the use of mobile devices on aeroplanes was no longer warranted.

The longstanding ban had been prompted by fears that personal electronic devices could interfere with aircraft navigation systems.

But an expert panel commissioned to produce a report over the past year has concluded that "airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight", the FAA announced on October 31.

That means that PEDs no longer need to be switched off at all and relaxation of the ban is expected to be adopted worldwide in the next few months. Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) says it is unlikely to stand in the way if airlines make the decision to lift the ban on the use of electronic devices or phones during flight.

A spokesman for CASA told the ABC there are no laws banning phone use on planes in Australia, but local airlines have always adopted international policies.

The next part of the process is to explicitly remove the bans on using mobile phones on aeroplanes and Australia is likely to take its lead from the US Federal Communications Commission, which last week foreshadowed it was about to take that step.

"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says. "I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

Air Transport World reports the FCC will vote next month on whether to put the proposal up for public comment.  The airspace regulator, the FAA, says inflight use of mobile phones ("cell phones", in US parlance) is outside its jurisdiction, putting the ball in FCC's court.

Because of the negative feedback they get from their customers, the airlines aren't going to be enthusiastic adopters of open slather use of mobile phones on planes.

In America, the Association of Flight Attendants says it is strongly against the FCC's proposal. "Passengers overwhelmingly reject cell phone use in the aircraft cabin," the AFA says. "FCC should not proceed with this proposal. AFA opposes any changes that would allow inflight voice calls.

"Any situation that is loud, divisive and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe. Many polls and surveys conducted over the years find that a vast majority of the travelling public wants to keep the ban on voice calls in the aircraft cabin."

Nevertheless, the genie is now out of the bottle. Although some have forecast that calling rates from planes using people's own mobile phones will be as prohibitive as the rates that now apply to airborne international calls from handsets installed in armrests, the technological pathway is now there to reduce the cost and therefore increase usage.

For a start, the customers can now supply the hardware. All the airline has to come up with is the software.

While the airlines acknowledge customer resistance to widespread usage of phones in planes, they would also love a new stream of so-called ancillary revenue, on which they increasingly depend to turn a profit.

The challenge for the airlines will be to figure out how they can promote the use of phones without annoying their customers.

Have you a horror story about phone use on planes? Are you in favour of being allowed to make calls from the air? Do you have a solution to the problem the airlines may not have thought of?