Road Warrior

Final days for public comment on voice calls on planes


The American public has until Friday to make their voices heard on whether they want to hear people talking on cellphones on planes.

That's the deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission for public comment on the hot-button issue. Comments can submitted online for issue No. 13301, with reaction to the comments open until March 17. Some comments have already been filed, including people worried about air rage.

"Airplanes are too small, too crowded, and too stress filled to allow this audible intrusion to occur. It will create havoc and ultimately hate and discontent," wrote a man from Terrebonne, Ore.

"There will be minor violence, some of it justified." one man from Pleasanton, Calif., said.

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"As a passenger of the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Transit (BART), I have had the unfortunate experience of sitting in proximity to people using cell phones to describe very intimate sexual acts unsuitable for children's ears, or anyone else for that matter," said one commenter from Sacramento, Calif. "Since no one can guarantee the conflicts would not become physical, this type of conflict is best avoided by keeping current rules in place."

Not all comments have been negative.

"We've had phones before and it wasn't a problem. Does no one remember the Airfone? The role that it played with Flight 93 on 9/11? Every row in most airlines had one. Yet there wasn't abuse; people used them when they had to, and no more air marshals were needed than were already there," said a man from Nashville.

After the deadline the FCC staff will review the comments and make a recommendation to the chair, who could then place it on the agenda for a vote.

Regardless of the decision, some airlines have already made clear they will not offer voice.

(Read more: Airlines ban in-flight calls, whatever FCC does)

Delta, which earlier pledged it will remain voice free, said it again in a letter to the FCC. "Regardless of the outcome of this rulemaking, Delta will not allow mobile wireless calls or internet-based voice communications on Delta or Delta Connection aircraft in flight," the airline states in its Feb. 7 comment. "Delta's research and customer feedback tell us that most passengers, and especially frequent flyers, believe that voice calls in the cabin during flight would be major annoyance and a serious disruption to the air travel experience. A clear majority of customers who responded to a 2012 survey said they felt the ability to make voice calls on board would detract from—not enhance—their experience."

But while U.S. fliers wring their hands over the prospect of listening to loud calls on long flights, the reality is that international flights have allowed in air voice calls for years.

Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Transaero, Etihad and SAS all offer voice calls on selected flights through a service installed by AeroMobile. In November 2013, U.S. customers talked for 33 hours and 14 minutes on AeroMobile flights, according to company records. U.S. subscribers make up around 20 percent of connected passengers on those U.S-bound flights with AeroMobile.

"Virgin Atlantic begin testing a voice service in 2012. It's limited to six users at any one time to avoid disruption to other passengers. We've had a positive response from customers so far and find that the majority use the service to text or make a quick call home to loved ones," Olivia Gall, the airline's corporate communications coordinator for the United States, told CNBC. "The service is not permitted during takeoff or landing and is switched off approximately 250 miles from U.S. airspace. Passengers are billed for international roaming charges through their own cellphone carriers."

Which electronics are banned in flight?

Lufthansa last week became the latest company to sign on for a AeroMobile service but it's not currently offering the voice option, a company spokesperson told CNBC.

(Read more: US business travel spending expected to rise)

AeroMobile is not the only voice service roaming the globe. "Most of our 20 airline customers in operation offer mobile phone with the voice activated," said Aurelie Branchereau, spokeswoman for OnAir. "Emirates, Aeroflot, TAM, Etihad are just a few examples among our customers who offer it."

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—By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter at @AmyLangfield. Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.