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Voice calls during flights mulled by U.S.

10/30/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST
Airline travel already has delays, cramped seating, luggage fees and expensive extras like, oh, sandwiches. Here's another potential irritation for that list: loud talkers on cellphones.

A U.S. Department of Transportation committee is examining the idea of allowing passengers to use cellphones for voice calls on commercial aircraft.

- Airplane electronic device restrictions lifted in U.S.

The advisory committee for aviation consumer protections met in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, where it heard from experts and stakeholders on the controversial issue.  

One of the first speakers was the Transportation Department's Robert Gorman, who told the committee the department got an earful when it first asked for public comment on the idea of removing the ban on voice calls.  

"Ninety-six to 98 per cent of [comments] were in favour of a ban. I would say 92 per cent of them were written in all caps. 'NOOOOOOO!'" said Gorman, as he mimed a furious tapping on an imaginary keyboard.  

"The average number of O's [in NO] was about 10," said Gorman.

No technical reason for ban

Cellphone use has been banned on airborne aircraft since 1991. The original concern involved potential interference with ground-based communication networks.   

That issue has since been overtaken by advances in technology.

These days, cellphones on airborne aircraft can send a lower-powered signal to a system on board the plane, which then sends that signal to a satellite or a dedicated ground network.  

Although passengers have been told for years in onboard announcements that cellphones could affect systems on the aircraft, the transportation official said that's not the case.

"Cellphones do not in fact interfere with the avionics systems, from a technical perspective, on airplanes," said Gorman. 

In October 2013, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced some new rules relaxing restrictions on handheld devices on planes. Passengers would be allowed to use their devices during all phases of the flight, including during take off and landings. Passengers would also be able to access Wi-Fi during flight, if the air carrier offered that service.

In May 2014, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt announced Canada would also allow handheld devices to be used at any time during flight, but said passengers would still be restricted from using Wi-Fi.

Both the U.S. and Canada maintained the ban on voice calls.

Who gets to choose?

Kevin Rogers, CEO of AeroMobile Communications Inc., a manufacturer of in-flight connectivity systems, said the absence of safety concerns regarding signal interference means airlines and consumers themselves should be the ones to decide whether voice calls are allowed on aircraft.

"Sitting in this [committee] room, you have the choice of Wi-Fi or cellphone coverage," said Rogers. "Airlines more and more believe it should be no different in the cabin of the airline."

Rogers said AeroMobile's system, which has passengers paying international roaming fees to their home operator, is currently being used by 13 airlines around the world, on 269 aircraft, and more than 500 flights daily.  

Access to voice calls is important to the business traveller, Rogers said. On transatlantic flights, usage is high during the day and low coming back at night, and the average voice call lasts two minutes, he said.

Rogers said passengers regulate themselves.

"There's a strong anecdotal belief that most of the voice service is used for what I call quiet voice: listening to voice mail and seeing the fact that you've had a missed call," Rogers said.  

Don't want to hear it

But many who work on airplanes are strongly opposed to the idea of voice calls.

"We've all had similar experience with an obtrusive caller in a grocery checkout line, a restaurant, or even on the airplane prior to departure," said Julie Frederick of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.

Frederick told the committee that aircraft cabins are noisy and people already typically speak louder on mobile phones, which could make it harder for passengers to hear safety instructions and emergency announcements.

She pointed out that U.S. security officials have raised concerns that terrorists or other criminals could use air-to-ground communication to co-ordinate an attack.

And she said voice calls could lead to an increase in air rage.

"We believe there will be a spike in confrontation between passengers that will, in the end, create moments of chaos in the cabin," said Frederick.

"[Passengers] have told us loud and clear, that silence is golden."

If you have a consumer issue, contact Aaron Saltzman, CBC's senior reporter, consumer affairs 

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