When will you be able to make a call on a plane?

“I can’t talk right now.”
“I can’t talk right now.”
Image: AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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While many flyers would prefer any airline feature over phone calls—smaller seats, a larger selection of $38 snack boxes, windows that open—the debate over sky-dialing is back. On Dec. 8, the US Department of Transportation opened the door to in-flight yakking by issuing a proposal that airlines inform passengers of their policy on phone calls in the air.

“[Allowing] voice calls, without providing adequate notice, would be an unfair and deceptive practice,” the DOT wrote. “As technologies advance, the cost of making voice calls may decrease and the quality of voice call service may increase, leading to a higher prevalence of voice calls and a greater risk of passenger harm.”

The US government has prohibited the use of in-flight cell phone use since 1991, and the $2.50/minute in-flight phones that used to be a cabin staple are at this point mostly gone. Passengers these days can only make calls when the plane is on the ground, and many of them prefer to keep it that way: Multiple efforts to scrap the DOT ban have been met with angry comments from the public.

But in-flight Wi-Fi service continues to improve, and might soon be strong enough for use with programs like Whatsapp and Skype, which make calls over the internet. Wi-Fi calls aren’t part of the government’s ban.

“While our Wi-Fi systems are set up to block most of apps, new ones are occasionally being developed,” United Airlines told its flight attendants this year, travel industry website Skift reported. “Also, certain tech savvy customers can use their Virtual Private Networks to access VoIP sites and apps.”

So far airlines are holding out. Several US outfits, including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, United and American Airlines, said they prohibit voice calls in flight, over cellular networks or Wi-Fi. But technology, unsurprisingly, is evolving faster than policy, and US consumers may change their tune. Some foreign airlines, including Emirates Airlines, already allow voice calls in flight.

If you thought the skies had unruly passengers before, wait until you combine unlimited wine with a seatmate who “can’t even with the food in Italy because nothing even had ‘spaghetti sauce’ on it.”