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On most airplanes with cellular and Wi-Fi capabilities, the ability to make mobile phone calls is technically disabled and passengers are prohibited from using the Wi-Fi service to make VoIP calls using services like Skype. This policy is set (as the airlines say) in response to passenger voices. However, most airlines have an onboard telephone service on most such aircraft (either in each seat or walk up to the galley).

If passengers complain about people talking on board, then why do they provide such onboard telephones in seats? Is there a different reason (e.g. more money for them) that they do this?

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    The in-seat telephones cost anywhere up to $7 per minute of call to a regular landline an up to $20 per minute if you're calling a satellite phone (e.g. Inmarsat). It's just too lucrative to forbid it.
    – Aleks G
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 19:38
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    @pnuts I haven't flown on US domestic flights in over 10 years now, but fly internationally regularly (up to 10 times a year) and a large proportion of international flights still have in-seat telephones. Note that I don't normally fly US airlines, but Virgin, BA, Turkish, Aeroflot and a bunch of others all offered it.
    – Aleks G
    Commented Oct 20, 2014 at 7:07
  • Money. As simple as that. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 21:21
  • @StephenKennedy Please see the answer ("more money is unlikely to be a significant factor").
    – gparyani
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 1:56
  • "On most airplanes with cellular and Wi-Fi capabilities, the ability to make mobile phone calls is technically disabled and passengers are prohibited from using the Wi-Fi service to make VoIP calls using services like Skype." So that the airline can sell very expensive phone calls. Money. Feel free to agree to disagree :) Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 9:08

2 Answers 2

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On most airplanes with cellular and Wi-Fi capabilities, the ability to make mobile phone calls is technically disabled and passengers are prohibited from using the Wi-Fi service to make VoIP calls using services like Skype.

Small point - Skype is not VoIP (in the technical sense). It uses its own proprietary protocol.

It is not airlines that prohibit voip calls, but its the provider that is being used and the bandwidth that is available for the flight.

In some areas, it may be blocked by the government. For example, in Saudi Arabia - WhatsApp (voice) is blocked, facebook calling doesn't work. In UAE, Skype is regulated as well.

Now, as to why the airlines provide telephones - these are because they are fitted to the seats, and its very rare for an airline to replace the seats in an airplane (its a significant upgrade) and its cheaper to install the wifi and cellular connectivity. So if you are sitting in an airplane with a traditional headset, it is likely an older aircraft.

Most modern aircraft seating eschews the telephone in favor of the onboard microcell (a mini cellular tower) in the airplane and WiFi.

The cabin crew has the ability to turn on and off the wifi and cellular service. It is usually turned off during the critical phases of flight.

Practically speaking, I used WhatsApp voice (which is more similar to Skype than a traditional VoIP application) on board the Emirates A380 without issue - although it did take a while for the device to login to the wifi after the initial connection.

The onboard cellular service (the new one), is billed by your carrier as international roaming. The older calling service (where you used to swipe your credit card into the headset) is billed at a premium by the service provider for that service.

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There is a lot about this here.

In summary, onboard telephones are of a design/spec/performance that is compatible with avionics, whereas some of the portable electronic equipment owned by the general public may not be as safe.

Some passengers do appreciate communications contact while in the air so some airlines/aircraft cater to their wishes by providing onboard sets.

More money is unlikely to be a significant factor. The main financial impact may be in ticket sales. ie to try and tempt passengers away from airlines that do not provide such a service. That would be difficult to quantify in view of all the other preferences involved in choosing an airline/aircraft. Yes, calls are expensive but few are made and the equipment involves capital and maintenance costs regardless of usage (and adds weight to the aircraft). (Note the mention of removing onboard sets, in the link.)

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  • What about VoIP calls? Is passenger comfort a true reason?
    – gparyani
    Commented Oct 19, 2014 at 19:45
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    Your answer fails to answer two key parts of my question: why do airlines then prohibit VoIP calls? And why do airlines provide telephones if passengers complain about their use?
    – gparyani
    Commented Oct 20, 2014 at 0:41

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