Since the beginning of the cell phone era, mobile phone calls have been generally disallowed on airline flights. FAA regulations ban them on the grounds that their signals could interfere with air to ground communications and flight instruments, and that they could cause congestion in cell phone towers. However, these regulations do not ban the use of the Internet in flight. Some airplanes have Wi Fi connections, making it possible for passengers with laptops or smartphones to go online.[http://consumerist.com/2009/09/should-airplane-passengers-be-allowed-to-make-voip-calls.html]
This opens the possibility of airline passengers making phone calls through voice over internet protocol (VOIP) applications, such as Skype or Truphone. Over the last few years, some airline passengers have been taking advantage of this possibility, making VOIP calls on laptops or Internet connected smartphones while in the air. While many airlines, especially in the US, have policies against this, not all do. The relatively new feasibility of using VOIP to make in-flight calls has generated a storm of controversy.
The most vocal participants in the debate appear to be those opposed. Blogs, discussion boards and comments on Internet articles covering the subject are full of objections to allowing VOIP calls on airplanes. Most of the commentators argue that allowing these phone calls would make for greater rudeness and annoyance to other passengers. They cite the prevalence of obnoxious cell phone talkers on buses and subways, of which airplanes have been blessedly free. Some have suggested that air rage incidents would be triggered by the annoyance of phone noises and loud talking.
It is true that cell phone users tend to talk louder than people who are talking to someone face to face or on a landline. People talking on cell phones cannot hear their own voices, which often makes them talk louder. In contrast, landline telephones have mechanisms that make users’ voices sound louder to their own ears, while people conversing face to face unconsciously moderate their tones in response to their conversational partners’ voices and facial expressions.
In small spaces, cell phone talk, already loud, is amplified even more from the bystanders’ points of view, and ring tones stand out. Anyone who has ridden public transportation in a major metropolitan area during commute hours can attest to how annoying this is. It stands to reason that this situation would be even worse during a long airline flight. Members of the House of Representatives, many of whom fly almost every week, tend to agree with this sentiment. In 2008, they introduced a bill to ban all phone calls by airline passengers in flight, including VOIP calls.
At the same time, European Union countries began moving toward making it more feasible for airline passengers to use VOIP technology. Many EU airlines have Wi Fi on their planes and no policies against Internet-based calling. The majority of European VOIP users limit their in-flight calls to no more than two minutes and do not talk particularly loudly. Even on US flights, some passengers have been unobtrusively using VOIP over the last several years. No serious problems have ever been reported.
Though it would seem logical that allowing airline passengers to make VOIP calls would make for heightened rudeness and unpleasant flights, in practice, this does not appear to be true. However, actual use of VOIP in flight has been limited in the US. Whether or not there would be problems if allowing it were the default policy is a matter of speculation. It remains uncertain if the majority of US airlines will begin to allow VOIP calling. Whether or not they should is a question without an obvious answer.