Lifting In-Flight Phone Call Ban Proposal Advanced by FCC

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission today voted to explore lifting the ban on in-flight calls aboard airliners while transportation regulators said they’re considering their own prohibition.

The FCC voted 3-to-2 on a Democratic-led measure seeking public comment on ending a restriction in place since the 1990s, one Chairman Tom Wheeler said is outdated due to changes in technology. A second vote would be needed for the ban to end.

The measure isn’t designed to promote in-air gabbing, Wheeler said. Allowing passengers to connect smartphones to cellular networks would encourage competition for in-flight services for text, e-mail and surfing the Web, he said. Airlines or other agencies could prohibit talking on the phone.

“This is a rule about technology,” said Wheeler, who earlier today told lawmakers it wasn’t the agency’s job to be the “Federal Courtesy Commission.”

“It is not a rule about usage,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees consumer protection of airline passengers, will separately consider whether allowing mobile-phone calls “is fair to consumers,” Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an e-mailed statement.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight –- and I am concerned about this possibility as well,” Foxx said.

Terror Concerns

The Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest union for cabin crews, is beginning a campaign to reverse the FCC decision, it said in an e-mail release.

“Flight attendants and passengers are united on this issue –- there should be no voice calls in flight,” Veda Shook, the union’s president, said in the release. Allowing phone use “would have negative effects on aviation safety and security.”

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said he voted against the measure because it may make it easier for terrorists to use mobile phones to coordinate hijackings or detonate bombs.

The measure “does not adequately address public safety and national security,” Pai said.

Lawmakers and many frequent fliers have criticized Wheeler’s proposal, saying passengers won’t want to be confined in an airplane cabin with blabbering seatmates.

Lawmaker Objections

Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who opposes phone calls, said today he supports Foxx’s effort.

“If DOT has determined they have the authority to keep a ban on in-flight calls in place, then I look forward to working with them to ensure something the public supports by a two-to-one margin,” Shuster said.

Shuster, joined by Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, and others, introduced legislation Dec. 9 to block airline calls.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, today introduced similar legislation. He was joined by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

“Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense,” Alexander said in an e-mailed news release.

The bill would allow the use of Internet-connected personal electronic devices such as Inc.’s Kindles and iPads from Apple Inc. during flight, which the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently approved.

‘Anger Generated’

Not all FCC members who voted for the measure endorsed airborne phone calling.

“I do not like this,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said during the agency’s meeting. “Given the anger this proposal has generated and the negative response of so many of those who work on planes, I fear that our safety would be compromised. This is not acceptable.”

Rosenworcel voted for the measure, saying “it is good to ask questions.”

She added, “When it comes to authorizing voice calls on planes, I think the answer is a resounding no.”

35,000 Feet

The ban was put in place because mobile phones traveling at 300 miles (483 kilometers) an hour in the skies may interfere with ground networks.

The new technology -- already in use on some carriers in Europe and Asia -- would require airlines to install special equipment, Wheeler said. Carriers must install a cellular node on a plane so that passenger devices will connect at low power, preventing interference with ground stations, he said.

The node would then funnel calls and data transfers to the ground via satellites or a separate air-to-ground network, he said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lifted a different ban on use of personal electronic devices that connect via Wi-Fi radio bands on Oct. 31.

While passengers may be able to perform many of the same functions with e-mail and the Internet using Wi-Fi, adding cellular access on planes increases competition and may lower prices for access, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said.

“I understand the consternation caused by the thought of your onboard seatmate disturbing the flight making phone calls,” Wheeler said in written testimony submitted for a congressional hearing today. “I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission.”

No Complaints

Geneva-based OnAir, which offers a satellite-based service that lets people connect using their smartphones through onboard network, said it supports the FCC proposal. OnAir clients include British Airways Plc, Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Aeroflot.

“Over four and a half million passengers use OnAir in-flight connectivity each year and what is very striking is that there has not been one single complaint about disruption caused by phone calls,” Ian Dawkins, chief executive officer of closely held OnAir, said in a news release distributed by PR Newswire.

Ten U.S. representatives in a letter told Wheeler they support his proposal even as they oppose voice calls in airlines, because rules should keep pace with technology.

More in-flight connectivity would give U.S. domestic fliers capabilities available elsewhere in the world, the lawmakers said in a letter yesterday to Wheeler that the FCC distributed by e-mail today.

The signers included Representative Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat, and Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who sits on the House communications panel.

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