It’s Possible to Make a Video Call on an Airplane, Why Can’t We Make It Practical?

Video conferencing on airplanes

There’s no escaping from an airplane–not without a parachute, and that comes at the cost of risking your life and not getting to your destination.

I make that obvious statement because the fact we’re all trapped together, dozens and dozens of us, for hours at a time, seems to be the sole reason why we can’t make a video call on an airplane. The technology is available now, with most major airlines adding in-flight wifi, and it is already in high use, with all the most popular social media apps coming equipped with video calling. Still, we don’t do it.

Why? Because, short of being trapped next to a screaming baby, the thought of being stuck listening to one half of someone else’s conversation for even ten minutes is terrifying. The dilemma is, if you’re on that call–or rather, if you want to make that call–video conferencing on planes is a really good idea. For business travelers, it’s exactly like having a meeting in the sky. For relatives, it’s an hour they can spend cooing at the new baby rather than staring out at the clouds. For reuniting friends, it’s a last-minute check-in before they finally meet again in person.

There must be a practical way to open the skies to video calling.

Will a Video Call on an Airplane Cause Fights?

If you weren’t aware, the restriction against making calls from your cell phone during a flight does, apparently, apply to making calls over wifi, whether those are just voice or voice and video. In fact, many airlines block the use of services like Skype to prevent calls. Nowadays, neither regular cell phone calls nor video calls over wifi pose any threat to airplanes, so the issue is more one of concern for passengers’ peace of mind than anything else.

The Transport Department and the Federal Communications Commission have both considered lifting bans on cellular and wifi calls on planes this decade, and on both occasions were shouted down by the public. The latest attempt, in early 2017, was met with more than 7,000 comments from the public–almost all of them negative.

One such comment read: “Pleeeeease do not allow voice calls on airplanes…it would be pure hell in that confined space to have to listen to people’s inane conversations, I’m sure there would be fights!”

So, we must be content with using the available wifi connections to watch movies and TV and YouTube clips. What makes the wasted opportunity even worse is the fact that airlines are getting better and better at providing internet connections.

Every Airline Now Has Wifi

Every major U.S. airline now provides some sort of in-flight wifi. The planes are now connected by many of the same towers and satellites that carry our data signals on the ground. As you might expect, the planes pick up these signals and navigate between towers through an array of antennae distributed along the fuselage. These signals are then delivered to passengers via an onboard router, just like the one you probably have at home to send wifi into different rooms.

This process is getting faster and faster as the decade progresses. In 2008, Virgin America had one of the fastest internet offerings at an interminably slow 3Mbps. Move ahead 10 years, and today’s airlines offer speeds of around 12Mbps, still well short of the American household average of 25Mbps but enough to carry a signal from, you guessed it, Skype–and perhaps even to allow Skype group calls.

Surely, with all this newfound internet access at our disposal, we can find a quiet, secluded, soundproof part of the plane where those of us that desperately want to can make a video call?

A Wifi Cone of Silence

There are 24 different airlines around the world that do already allow wifi calls during flights–wifi has no impact on the instruments needed to fly a plane. If, however, those airlines enter U.S. airspace, they have to turn the service off. We don’t have to test people’s patience by going that route, but the new enclosed seats currently being offered in first class by Emirates airlines look like a nice place to hold a video conversation. If we could soundproof those little rooms, there would be nothing to stop passengers from video chatting all the way from New York to London.

Of course, first-class cabins are hardly a solution for everyone. Perhaps we could build a few of them into the rear end of the economy section, however, and allow people to book 20 minutes or so of face-to-face time during the flight? There was a time when people lined up for public phone booths, so maybe we could find that patience once more. There wouldn’t be any need to develop technology beyond a few sound baffles, as every smartphone–and we all have them–is a readymade video conferencing platform. It would be one way to reclaim at least a couple of those hours lost to travel.

We’re already talking about installing video conferencing equipment into self-driving cars, every coffee shop in town is wifi friendly, and many public libraries are using their internet connections for far more adventurous activities than scouring the Dewey Decimal system. There must be a chance, by now, for in-flight video conferencing.

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