Cellphone calls are prohibited in the air. But fliers increasingly are carrying smartphones and tablet computers on flights. And airlines increasingly are equipping their planes with broadband access. The combination allows passengers to log on and talk to people over Internet calling services such as Skype.
And it's set the stage for an argument over whether any calls should be allowed, as the Federal Aviation Administration studies whether to expand passengers' use of electronic gadgets in the air.
On one side, groups that represent the electronics and telecommunications industry say Internet calls are as easy as streaming movies and that passengers should be allowed to make them. On the other, flight crews and many passengers oppose any more noisy distractions in the cabin.
"This is an issue that clearly is not going away," says Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America.
The Federal Communications Commission prohibits cellphone calls on planes to avoid interference with ground networks. But airlines can allow the use of electronics such as tablets and smartphones above 10,000 feet in the air, after showing the FAA that they don't interfere with aircraft equipment.
About 300 planes have broadband access now, and 7,000 are expected in the next five years, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Airlines offering service include Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, United and US Airways. Delta and Southwest prohibit voice calls as part of their service, which Southwest says is "due to the shared environment."
The Telecommunications Industry Association argues that the FAA shouldn't dictate which uses are allowed on the Internet, such as allowing streaming movies while prohibiting Skype calls.
"We wouldn't want a government regulation to pick a winner or loser among technologies, which should be allowed to compete," says Brian Scarpelli, the association's senior manager for government affairs.
The FAA currently doesn't prohibit Internet calls, termed VoIP or "Voice over Internet Protocol" calls. And if an airline wants to allow them, the FAA requires procedures for how flight crews deal with electronics and announcements for when passengers can use the devices.
While calls remain contentious, personalized entertainment is popular among the comments that the FAA has collected the last two months as it considers what devices it will allow and how they should be used in the air.
Flight attendants say electronic devices -- especially voice calls from passengers -- distract from safety lectures and disturb other travelers.
"It's a safety and a security issue," says Caldwell, spokeswoman for the union representing 60,000 attendants at 21 airlines.
For a union survey, one attendant described interrupting a Skype call a passenger made to his daughter on a flight from Philadelphia to San Diego. "This should not be possible to do," the attendant told the survey.
Delta Air Lines polled 1,462 passengers and found nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) said they'd consider flying a negative experience if phone calls were allowed during flights.
But Delta was among groups urging the FAA to allow the use of electronic devices at any time other than during safety lectures if the sound was turned down.
--Cellphones and tablets are what passengers would most like to use below 10,000 feet.
---Making voice calls is only the sixth priority for passengers using smartphones.
---Reading electronic books, listening to music, sending text messages, watching movies and playing games are the top activities passengers would like to do below 10,000 feet.
There's an ongoing safety concern that using electronic devices in flight causes radio emissions that may interfere with a plane's communications and navigation equipment. But Delta insists that possible interference is rare.
Delta pilots reported an electronic device possibly affecting flight equipment only three times out of 2.3 million flights since Jan. 1, 2010, the airline told the FAA. Mechanics reported 24 incidents of possible interference during that period. But none of the reports were ever confirmed, the airline says.
"The benefits of expanded in-flight (electronic device) usage outweigh the extreme low risk of an actual interference event occurring based on the data Delta has assembled," Kirk Thornburg, managing director for aviation safety assurance at Delta, told the FAA.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)