Passengers have publicly pined for a ban on in-flight cell-phone calls, and they may soon get their wish: The Transportation Department announced last week it plans to make the skies a no-call zone.
But the airline industry is pushing back, with carriers saying they deserve the right to set their own phone policies, particularly now that federal authorities say phones won't interfere with planes' instruments.
And in setting those policies, airlines could be on the verge of a cash cow: Given the freedom to find their own solutions, some airlines say they might look at options like phone booths or quiet zones similar to what some railroads currently offer. JetBlue, for instance, is considering a separate area for passengers who want to use their phones.
Other airlines have considered sections similar to the "quiet cars" offered on trains. It's not hard to imagine airlines pitching themselves as "call-free" or "always connected"—with an added charge for each.
Say you need to make an emergency call mid-flight (the DOT's plan will still allow you to connect to the outside world with texting and data). You might have to make your way to another section of the plane, wait in line, and then pay to access a calling area.
Or perhaps you're on an airline that offers unrestricted calling and just don't want to be bothered. For a convenience charge, you can pay in advance for a quiet seat—and hope your neighbors observe the rules.
These charges are all hypothetical at the moment, but some passengers have already said they'd pay up. Holiday travelers told National Journal last year they'd be willing to pay upwards of hundreds of dollars to use their phones—or avoid those who do. One flier said he'd pay $300 to avoid sitting next to mobile chatterboxes. Other business travelers said they'd pay to stay connected in the air.
"If the current airline environment has taught us anything, it's that airlines are not afraid to charge a fee for everything," said Erik Hansen of the U.S. Travel Association, a network of travel and tourism companies. "It's not out of the realm of possibility."
Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, agreed. "The ancillary revenue stream is very important in the finances of our aviation industry," she said. "It's not surprising that airlines are trying to think of ways to help boost revenue, and I think that's just one of them."
Fees or not, airline defenders say it's an overstep to ban calls just because they're annoying. "There's no good reason to ban it from a technological perspective," said Tim Farrar, a consultant who monitors the issue. "It's sort of pandering—we can do something that passengers appear to want."
The Federal Communications Commission overturned its long-standing ban in December, saying interference concerns were no longer an issue. "We are not the Federal Courtesy Commission," Chairman Tom Wheeler said at the time, while noting DOT could still issue a ban of its own.
Hansen says it's more than a courtesy issue. "There are some serious safety concerns over whether in-flight calls could provoke cabin rage," he said. "What we can't do is just reflexively allow calls to happen on planes and think that there will be no unintended consequences."
And passengers won't be the only ones who suffer, added Caldwell. "When there is an issue at 35,000 feet, there's only a certain amount of things that flight attendants can do to de-escalate a situation and contain it," she said. "When people are talking on their cell phones and creating a disturbance in the cabin, flight attendants are then distracted from their role as first responder."
Farrar thinks these fears are overblown. Airlines would have to rework plane infrastructure to make calls happen in the first place, and no carrier would allow calls for long if customers took their business elsewhere. "Airlines will find their own solutions and passengers will choose based on what matters to them," he said.
He also expressed concern that international flights, on which calls are allowed, could face confusion when entering U.S. airspace. Texting and data, which are not included in the ban, could also get mixed up in the issue if standards are unclear.
A pair of airline advocacy groups did not respond to requests for comment.