FCC To Consider Reversing Ban On Cell Calls On Planes

6:18 PM, Nov 21, 2013   |    comments
Photo: Associated Press
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Bart Jansen, USA TODAY

The Federal Communications Commission announced Thursday it will review its ban against cell-phone calls aboard airliners.

The FCC has banned in-flight calls since 1991 because of concerns that calls would jam ground-based communications systems. The commission considered relaxing its ban in 2004, but decided against a change after a flood of opposition and because of lingering technical questions.

In revealing its agenda for the Dec. 12 meeting, the FCC announced that it would consider changing its rules to allow airline passengers access to mobile wireless services.

"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. "I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

The proposal will allow for public comment for a period that hasn't been determined yet. The proposal would give airlines the option to allow voice calls, according to two FCC sources who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Phones are used widely on airlines in other countries, for calls and data, by linking essentially to a communications tower aboard the plane. This would satisfy FCC concerns about interference with ground stations, according to the two agency sources.

"On the technical side of things, there have been changes that do allow wireless services on planes that prevent interference with ground service," one source said. "We think there is some benefit to giving airlines the choice of improving consumer choice and access, and let them to decide whether or not they're going to allow voice."

A spokeswoman for the airline industry said they haven't seen the proposal and declined comment. "We will want to analyze any proposal to understand the impact," said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the group Airlines for America.

Capt. Patrick Smith, a 20-year pilot who writes the blog askthepilot.com, said cell calls wouldn't be allowed if safety issues remained, so it's just a social question. He worries that allowing calls could pit passenger against passenger in arguing about how noisy the cabin could be.

"Just imagine 250 passengers all making calls at once," Smith said. "I shudder to imagine how awful that would be."

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA strongly opposed the move. The group warned that calls would be disruptive, loud and divisive, and possibly go beyond a mere nuisance to hurt safety by drowning out announcements.

"Passengers overwhelmingly reject cell phone use in the aircraft cabin," the union said. "The FCC should not proceed with this proposal."

Passengers including frequent business travelers have long opposed allowing calls because of the noise from listening to other calls. But some passengers would like to be able to call during flights.

"My answer is quite simple: Absolutely no way. Never," said Diane Johnson of Fort Worth, a publications executive. "With all the stress of travel, silence on a plane is like music to my ears."

Bill Clegg, a hotel executive in Rockville, Md., said the last thing he wants on a flight is someone near him talking during the whole trip.

"I am very much opposed to allowing voice calls aboard flights," Clegg said. "The cacophony of babies crying, children screaming, and adults carrying on conversations, does not need the addition of business travelers closing deals or leisure travelers yakking about travel plans, romances, or what they had for dinner last night!"

Kim Hunter of Los Angeles, head of a marketing company who travels more than 150,000 miles per year, said calls are fine so long as "there is no disruption on the both the flight deck and the cabin."

"If the later is true, I support allowing voice calls aboard all flights, both domestic and international," Hunter said.

James Morrow, an information technology consultant from Overland Park, Kansas, said opponents may be overreacting because he thinks the airlines will charge dearly for the calls.

"While it might be annoying to be sitting next to someone who is on the phone, I think people are overestimating how frequently this will actually be used," Morrow said. "The airlines will charge dearly for the privilege and sound quality of the call will almost certainly suffer if only due to the background noise of an airplane"

The Federal Aviation Administration recently allowed passengers to use their gadgets such as games and e-readers while taking off and landing, after reversing a ban on electronics when the plane is less than 10,000 feet in the air.

That change spurred attention to allowing calls.

"I'm not surprised we're moving in this direction," said Smith, who suggested that perhaps sections of a plane could be mapped out for cell phone use. Completely overturning the ban "is an invitation to disaster."

USA Today

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