Along with properly stowing carry-on luggage, putting your seat in the upright position, and securing your seatback tray table, switching your phone to airplane mode are among the common requirements before take-off for airline passengers. But a new ruling in Europe could mean that flight mode will no longer be required, allowing travelers to take phone calls from cruising altitude.
The European Commission recently announced that by June 30, 2023, member states would need to make 5G connectivity available on planes within Europe.
Passengers aboard flights in the EU will be able to use their mobile phones to the maximum of their capacity and features, just as with a ground-based 5G mobile network, the commission stated—meaning the traveling public would be able to use their phones to text, call, and stream videos in the air.
“The sky is no longer a limit when it comes to possibilities offered by super-fast, high-capacity connectivity,” Theirry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, said in a statement about the new 5G decision.
The latest mobile network, 5G uses radio frequencies to carry information through the air, connecting machines and devices. It is currently unclear how exactly the use of 5G on planes will work and if it will be available for free or at an additional cost and how it will work for international flights into and out of the European Union.
The EU’s decision is in sharp contrast to how the United States is addressing 5G connectivity in the skies. Earlier this year, airlines sent a letter to the White House and the FCC warning that the rollout of new 5G service could jeopardize flight safety, resulting in cancellations and route changes. Part of the problem is that the 5G used in the United States is close to the same frequency used on planes to measure altitude, which is especially important in low visibility situations, making interference a higher possibility. In Europe, the frequencies are less closely related.
The U.S. rule prohibiting cell phone use on planes was originally rolled out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a U.S. government agency that regulates domestic civil aviation, in 1991. It stated that personal devices could potentially interfere with the pilot’s navigation system—and the regulation hasn’t been changed since. Airlines have long offered Wi-Fi for a fee (or sometimes free) on planes, which is possible through Wi-Fi networks (which are often critiqued as slow and spotty). And while inflight Wi-Fi allows users to browse and text, service isn’t usually strong or reliable enough for video or web calls and streaming videos, and without cell service, passengers can’t make or receive regular phone calls during a flight.
Considering the FAA’s Reauthorization Act of 2018 states that “the Secretary of Transportation shall issue regulations to prohibit an individual on an aircraft from engaging in voice communications” it’s unlikely that the U.S. will follow suit, at least with allowing phone calls, even if it became possible to use 5G on planes within the country.
“FCC regulations prohibit the use of cellular phones on airborne aircraft,” the FAA told AFAR, when asked about the matter. The agency did not elaborate as to whether 5G and the use of mobile phones will likely be allowed on aircraft stateside and simply added that “the FAA would work closely with the FCC and other stakeholders to ensure safety if any changes to that prohibition were proposed.”
While the technology could make phone calls on planes a possibility, Henry H. Harteveldt, president of travel industry analysis company, Atmosphere Research Group, thinks it’s unlikely sky-high phone calls will be allowed.
“I believe the flight attendant unions will strenuously oppose any move to allow in-flight phone calls due to concerns about the risk they may spark air rage between passengers,” Harteveldt says.
Depending on what new rules accompany the 5G on planes, it could result in more flight attendants acting as in-flight security guards, at a time when the number of passengers acting out has been on the rise. In the last two years, the FAA has had to initiate investigations into 1,099 unruly passenger incidents in 2021 and 767 incidents between January 1 and November 1, 2022. Between 1995 and 2020, the average number of cases was 197 per year.
While having the service available certainly has its benefits, like being able to better coordinate airport pickups and the ability to respond to emergencies on the ground, it could introduce new problems, such as loud talkers and the inability to ever really disconnect. Time will tell if the pros outweigh the cons.