Cellphones on a plane!
The ban on phones in flight may be lifted - but is that necessarily a good thing?
(FORTUNE Magazine) - The security line feels like a maze, the legroom in coach reminds you of the time your son talked you into climbing into his crib, and it looks as if you'll have to circle over O'Hare a few more times.
But don't complain yet: The most unpleasant place for business travelers may be about to get even more disagreeable.
Consumer advocates, trade groups, and even one phone company (Cingular) have gone on the record against phones on airplanes in flight. An early attempt at the service, Verizon (Research)'s Airfone, appealed to only the most desperate callers, thanks to its $4.99-per-minute rate and echo-chamber sound.
But now air carriers (which are hungry for any new revenue opportunity) and some mobile-phone carriers (which want to extend their reach to the skies) are pushing for changes in rules that will permit phone calls while in flight.
As FORTUNE went to press, the FCC was holding an auction for two available licenses to provide high-speed telecom services on planes. While the auction was mostly about the right to offer in-flight Internet access, most industry observers believe no-holds-barred calling can't be far off.
There are already signs that regulatory resolve is on the wane. Right now the Federal Aviation Administration bans the use of regular mobile phones in flight for safety reasons. But last year the FAA gave preliminary approval for United Airlines to test Wi-Fi in flight.
And while the FCC restricts the use of standard mobile phones after takeoff, it issued a proposal in 2005 to lift that ban so long as the phones are connecting to an antenna on the plane itself.
The safety issues may be avoided by using voice-over-Internet phones, but that may actually diminish travelers' comfort. Not only will you have to deal with people talking, but, in your cramped seat, you'll be surrounded by talkers who also need to get their computers connected to do it. Passengers on international flights that permit Internet access report that some are already using VoIP services such as Skype to make phone calls.
"I commute to work every day by plane," says Thom McDaniel, president of Transport Workers Union of America Local 556, which represents Southwest (Research) flight attendants. "There are enough things about air travel that can be uncomfortable. The one saving grace is that we don't have to listen to someone on the phone for hours. On a train you can get up and move if you want to, and go to a quiet car. On a plane you don't have the option of leaving. You're stuck."
As long as we're captive, the next logical step is for the airlines to follow Amtrak's lead by creating "quiet sections" on planes and charging a premium for them - the way they now charge for amenities, like snacks, that used to come with the price of a coach ticket. And for many business travelers, the silence might just be worth it.
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From the May 29, 2006 issue