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FCC Takes Steps to Lift Ban on in-Flight Use of Cellphones

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to consider lifting its ban on in-flight cell phone use.

Cell Phone Usage on Airplanes

File photo of passengers using their cell phones on an unidentified airline. (Credit: CNN)

On the same day, the federal Department of Transportation and three members of Congress took steps to block those calls.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement to CNN that he is looking into the possibility of banning in-flight calls, citing its aviation consumer protection authority. The DOT will determine whether allowing calls is “fair to consumers.”

Many people consider the idea of cell phone conversations annoying in the close confines of a plane, and some are casting it as a consumer rights issue.

“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.

Meanwhile, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) introduced legislation on Thursday to ban cell phone conversations on commercial airline flights. House Rep. Bill Shuster, (R-Pennsylvania) has also introduced a bill that would prohibit in-flight voice communications but allow text messaging.

Those actions come as the FCC considers whether it should lift its decades-old ban on cell phones on aircraft.

Are the two government entities working at cross purposes? Perhaps. But each cites its individual and independent mandates.

The FCC has banned in-flight calls for technical reasons. But new technology has made that ban obsolete, the commission says, and there’s no reason to continue it.

The DOT, which includes the Federal Aviation Administration, is entrusted with safe air travel, but also with protecting the rights of air travelers.

The FCC has been pelted with criticism in the last several weeks after the commission’s new chairman made the announcement.

“I’m the last person in the world who wants to listen to someone talking to me while I fly across the country,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler — who proposed the change — told a congressional panel Thursday. “But we are the technical agency, and we will make the rules for the way the new technology works.”

The current requirement that cell phones may not be used in-flight would actually be expanded to include all bands, said Wheeler, unless airlines install new on-board equipment that prevents interference with terrestrial networks.

“The proposal would not require airlines to either install such equipment, or to offer mobile wireless services aboard their aircraft” he said. “Airlines would be free, within the confines of the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (DOT), to make their own decisions. We simply propose that because new technology makes the old rule obsolete the FCC should get government out from between airlines and their passengers.”

“If we move beyond what we do here today and actually update our rules to allow voice calls on planes we can see a future where our quiet time is monetized and seating in the silent section comes at a premium,” said FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted in favor of the proposal.

The Association of Flight Attendants, a union that has been leading a campaign against cell phone calls in-flight, promised to continue lobbying against the proposal. “As the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, flight attendants understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment, and passengers agree,” said AFA president Veda Shook, in a statement.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday indicates most Americans want silence when they fly, with 59% saying they don’t want the use of cell phones on airplanes and only 30% saying they are in favor of lifting the ban. A mute button is also a strong option among those polled.

Even a majority of tech-reliant younger respondents, ages 18 to 29, are against using phones on planes — 52% opposed to 39% in favor.

The FCC is taking public input on the proposal, and an agency statement says officials will consider consumer and stakeholder opinion before taking any final action. The agency offers more information on its website, including a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and a means of filing comments online.

Rep. Shuster told CNN that crying babies and snoozing adults cause enough commotion on flights, and cell phone calls will only make matters worse.

“Tap, don’t talk,” Shuster said.


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