Cell Phones On Planes: FAA Probably Won't Allow Anytime Soon

In December, then-Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski wrote a letter to his counterpart at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Acting Administrator Michael Huerta, asking to allow greater use of electronics in-flight.

Though the FAA is reportedly considering the potential of expanded wireless access and its associated health and safety concerns, and while some European airliners already allow voice calls in-flight, it’s unlikely the FAA will extend this capability to Americans. And that may be more a function of what we want than what the FAA is willing to do.

According to a survey of 1,788 consumers completed early last month by the Travel Leaders Group, nearly 80% of respondents are opposed to allowing in-flight calls. This is the composite of several responses. While 49.7% are opposed to full phone use in-flight, 31.3% are in favor of full phone use so long as voice calls are prohibited.

It would not be a leap to claim that the reason underlying little support for in-flight calls is a product of intense displeasure at the prospect of having to overhear one-sided conversations, what some researchers have dubbed “halfalogues.” Authors Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman write in their book, Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, that much of this annoyance comes from the cognitive frustration in processing these half-conversations.

Our brains have an innate desire to form patterns from our environment, so when given half a conversation we cannot help but attempt to fill-in the gap. Of course, we’re often less than successful in clairvoyantly divining the emerging transcript of a phone conversation. The dual-burden of having to craft the other half of the dialogue while being proven wrong in real-time is maddening. Not that you need anyone to tell you that.

Not only is it the case that processing these calls into our mental framework is uncomfortable, but it is also less escapable than full conversations. A research team at the University of San Diego found that halfalogues are significantly more distracting to bystanders than two-sided conversations. To extend the cognitive-processing hypothesis, this may be because it’s easier to process and place on the mental backburner a full conversation.

While in-flight voice calls are unlikely to catch on, there’s little we can do to escape the plight of having to listen to them on the ground.