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Delta Airlines will prohibit in-flight phone calls

A traveler walks by a Delta Airlines skycap

A traveler walks by a Delta Airlines skycap kiosk at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, Calif. (Jan. 12, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

Delta Air Lines Inc. said it won’t allow in-flight voice calls, throwing the weight of one of the industry’s biggest U.S. carriers against lifting a ban on in-air phone conversations.

“Our customer research and direct feedback tell us that our frequent fliers believe voice calls in the cabin would be a disruption to the travel experience,” Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson wrote in a memo today to employees.

Delta’s release of his remarks in a statement to news organizations underscored the airline’s opposition to calls on planes. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-to-2 on Dec. 12 to seek public comment on ending a restriction that has been in place since the 1990s. Another vote would be needed to end the ban.

Anderson’s comments reflect a sentiment that’s popular within the airline industry and among some lawmakers: While mobile-phone e-mails and texts are fine, calls are not. United Continental Holdings Inc. said it doesn’t intend to permit the use of voice calls, though it’s soliciting opinions from customers and crew members. Southwest Airlines Co. CEO Gary Kelly also said last week that he doesn’t favor such calls.

Negative Polling

JetBlue Airways Corp.’s informal survey of customers shows most are against calls, said Tamara Young, a spokeswoman for the New York-based airline. The airline would review the policy if the ban is lifted, giving priority to passenger comfort, she said.

Airlines would get to choose whether to allow voice service if the ban is lifted. To provide onboard voice service, carriers would have to install a cellular node to connect phones at low power to prevent ground-station interference.

American Airlines Group Inc., now the world’s largest carrier after it merged with US Airways, doesn’t have voice capability on its in-flight Internet service, Matt Miller, a spokesman, said in an email. The airline plans to keep customer preferences in mind if the mobile-phone ban is lifted.

Anderson said Atlanta-based Delta supports the gate-to-gate use of “silent data transmission” from mobile devices such as text and email. A majority of customers in a 2012 survey said on-board calling would detract from the flying experience and Delta’s in-flight crews are against it, he said in the memo.

Lawmaker Opposition

The airline’s view is shared by lawmakers from both parties. Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Oregon Democrat Peter Defazio introduced a bill last week to block airline calls. In the Senate, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, joined by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, introduced a similar measure.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said he would use his authority over airline consumer affairs to decide whether voice calls should be allowed.

Not everyone wants the government to dictate the policy. In-flight calling doesn’t impact safety, so it doesn’t make sense for lawmakers to decide the issue, said Jay Sorensen, president of the Shorewood, Wisconsin-based aviation consultant IdeaWorksCompany and a former Midwest Airlines executive.

“Each company should be able to state its policy and allow customers to choose,” Sorensen said. “That’s how the market should work.”

Airlines outside of the U.S. have allowed passengers to use their mobile phones, including for calls, without problems, Grant Seiffert, president of the Telecommunications Industry Association, wrote in a Dec. 10 online letter. As much as 90 percent of mobile phone use involves texting or data and most calls typically last one to two minutes, he said.

“The FCC’s potential rule change would increase connectivity for consumers and open a new ecosystem for in-flight services of all kinds,” Seiffert said.

The opposition from flight crews, on top of skeptical passengers, will lead most airlines initially to prohibit in-flight calling, Sorensen said. That stance could change over time.

“At the point that an airline can generate some revenue from this, that may change their impression,” Sorensen said.

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