March 28 - BTC Supports Listen-Only Cell Phone Use on U.S. Commercial Aircraft



Washington, D.C. 20590

In the Matter of Use of Mobile Wireless Devices for Voice Calls On Aircraft

Docket No. DOT-OST-2014-0002              



Business Travel Coalition (BTC) urges the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to permit controlled inbound voice communications and prohibit outbound voice communications aboard U.S. commercial aircraft. To the extent that DOT finds aircraft security and cabin safety to be compromised by specific types of wireless or cell phone use, then it should exercise its authority to disallow such activity. Where controlled cell phone use does not impose risk, DOT should, to the maximum extent possible, allow airlines to respond to customer demands with programs shaped by the marketplace. Technology could be used to limit cell phone use in flight to a listen-only mode enabling business travelers to participate in important conference call meetings and web-based presentations.


As evidenced by comments in the DOT docket as well as by numerous surveys over the past few years, the majority of U.S. airline industry consumers and professional airline industry participants are opposed to the unrestricted use of cell phones in an airplane cabin while in flight. Issues of cabin safety and aircraft security are of major concern. However, most air travelers, it would seem, want to protect their ability to read, concentrate or sleep during a flight, which is largely incompatible with nearby cell phone conversations.

Consumer objections to cell phone use is made more problematic by aircraft that were designed in an era that never contemplated today’s sustained high seat-occupancy levels, especially on high-demand routes. Moreover, recent airline industry policies that encourage passengers to store items onboard that were previously checked has caused elevated tension in the cabin as passengers compete for storage space. The environment is made worse by passengers who game the checked baggage rules by carrying disallowed large items on board causing flight attendants to intervene to have the items checked in the cargo hold while causing a delayed flight departure.

The many stressful challenges of the commercial air travel process today for both passengers and crew, along with what many observe as a degradation of civility in the cabin, can create an unstable interactive group atmosphere while in flight. Being forced to listen to and process a one-sided conversation is a problem for most humans and could amount to a frustration-tipping-point for some travel-weary passengers. Researchers at Cornell University and the University of California, San Diego have established that listening to one-sided cell phone conversations degrades our cognitive abilities and is a highly distractive and unwanted experience for most humans.(1) (2)       


We live in the Information Age and succeed as individuals, organizations and as a country in large part based upon how we exploit communications technologies. Among today’s numerous communications technologies, the cell phone was the most quickly adopted technology in the history of mankind.(3)  Indeed, the cell phone represents a highly leveraged platform to access many of the other productivity-driving technologies. The number of cell-phone accessed conference calls and web-based audio and graphical presentations has grown exponentially over the past ten years. 

Today, business executives, medical professionals, government officials, lawyers and travelers from many other societal segments participate in numerous such activities on a weekly basis. To miss a scheduled call or presentation because of plane-travel requirements diminishes productivity and executive effectiveness. To be briefed by an aide or colleague on the content of a missed meeting is an inferior option to being on the call or present for an online presentation. The cost today to the private and government sectors of the millions of missed conference calls and presentations has yet to be calculated but is no doubt significant. The removal of this barrier to business travel would likely increase demand for air travel expanding economic benefits to airlines and local communities.


BTC recommends that DOT consider allowing airlines to permit cell phone use in a controlled, inbound, listen-only mode so that business travelers can participate passively in conference calls and web events without interfering with fellow passengers. Airlines should be free to work with technology providers to bring such a solution to market. For example, perhaps existing cell phone technology could be modified. Currently, Airplane Mode on many cell phones disables connectivity for voice, data, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and location-based services. Perhaps a listen-only, voice transmission functionality could be embedded in Airplane Mode. 


BTC recommends that as DOT proceeds in its rulemaking process that it allow flexibility for this kind of modified Airplane Mode or other technological or non-technological solutions that would enable inbound voice communications without degrading passenger convenience, cabin safety or aircraft security. 

March 26, 2014

Kevin P. Mitchell


Business Travel Coalition

214 Grouse Lane, Suite 110

Radnor, PA 19087


1. Galván VV, Vessal RS, Golley MT (2013) The Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on the Attention and Memory of Bystanders. PLoS ONE 8(3): e58579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058579

2. Emberson LL, Lupyan G, Goldstein MH, & Spivey MJ (2010). Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech Is More Distracting. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 20817912

3. Pew Research Internet Project, Mobil Technology Fact Sheet (January 2014) available at


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