Will FCC allow cell phone calls on airplanes? Proposed change sparks debate

Bekah Wright
Yahoo! Travel

While jubilation followed a Federal Aviation Administration ruling in October that allowed airline passengers to use electronic devices during all phases of flight, Thursday’s Federal Communications Commission vote to consider expanding that access by allowing some in-flight phone use has both public and government opinion divided.

The approved proposal, a “request for editorial privileges granted,” kicks off a period of information collection and public input that could take more than a year.

To put this in perspective, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a USA Today op-ed, “We’re at the start of this process – one that is pro-competition and pro-technology. If the Commission ultimately adopts new rules as proposed, I expect consumers will make their voices heard and the marketplace will make the right decisions.”

The current FCC regulations regarding in-flight cell phone use were adopted in 1991, during the analog era. Technological advances have made them obsolete, Wheeler said. Looking to stay in step with evolving technologies, the FCC is proposing to put control of cell phone use in the hands of airlines and consumers.

Following the FCC meeting on Thursday, Wheeler clarified through a statement that current rules need to be updated because as they’re written, they don’t apply to all types of phones: “The current rule applies only to phones operating on the 800MHz frequency band and ignores all other cellular frequencies. This regulatory inconsistency is poor policy.”

Wheeler said the proposed rule change would ban in-flight calls from all cell phones “unless the aircraft is outfitted with on-board equipment that manages a cellular signal before it has the potential to interfere with terrestrial networks. Absent such equipment, the ban would remain in effect.”

That said, “Our engineering belief (on which comment is sought) is that it is technically safe to use the new onboard equipment to prevent interference with terrestrial networks.”
Wheeler’s support for the update doesn’t mean he thinks cell phone conversations on planes are a good idea. "I'm the last person in the world who wants to listen to somebody talking" while flying across the country, he told a House subcommittee Thursday morning.

Even if in-flight cell phone use is eventually approved, it would be by airlines’ choice rather than an FCC mandate. Individual airlines interested in allowing passengers to make in-flight cell-phone calls would be required to have both licenses and certifications for necessary equipment. Airlines would also have the option to stick with equipment that allows for texting, email and Internet access but not voice calls.

The FCC made a similar move in 2004, but opposition and technology questions halted the process. This time, public opinion could be its biggest challenge.

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that 48 percent of Americans oppose allowing cellphones to be used for voice calls while flying; just 19 percent support it. Frequent fliers are even more opposed: Among Americans who have taken more than one flight in the past year, 59 percent are against allowing calls on planes. That number grows to 78 percent among those who've taken four or more flights.

The FCC plans to take public comment on the issue. While it hasn’t yet opened a formal comment period, the agency’s website says consumers are welcome to comment now via phone or mail. The agency plans to set up more options for public comment soon.

Most Middle East airlines and a few in Asia and Europe already allow voice calls on planes. Others allow texting.

Armed with knowledge that many of their constituents oppose in-flight calls, various members of Congress put their opinions into a letter sent to Wheeler yesterday. The missive expressed opposition to in-flight cell services but added that “as Members of Congress who are concerned about making sure that our laws and regulations keep up with the pace of modern technologies, we support this process, and believe that appropriate actions can be taken to modernize an outdated technological rule and enhance passenger connectivity while in flight.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation swiftly responded to the FCC proposal with a statement of its own. “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,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote.

“As the FCC has said before, their sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight. We believe USDOT’s role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers.”

Foxx said his department will begin its own investigation into whether it should ban in-flight calls. “As part of that process, USDOT will give stakeholders and the public significant opportunity to comment,” he said.

Wheeler said he was “pleased” by the DOT’s announcement.

Also giving a thumbs-up to DOT’s statement was House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA). On Dec. 9, Shuster introduced the Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act of 2013 bill, H.R. 3676, which sets out to “prohibit an individual on an aircraft from engaging in voice communications using a mobile communications device during a flight of that aircraft in scheduled passenger interstate or intrastate air transportation.”

“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 in a statement. “Airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined. Being able to logon to text and email is useful for passengers, but it’s just unnecessary to have potentially dozens of phone conversations occurring during a flight.”

Also among the proposal’s opponents: flight attendants. The Association of Flight Attendants–CWA union made its feelings known front and center on its website, where a circle/slash photo of a cell phone with “No Calls on Planes” is boldly displayed.

A click-through brings readers to a call for action: “The expanded cell phone use will compromise Flight Attendants’ ability to maintain order in an emergency, increase cabin noise and tension among passengers, and add unacceptable risk to aviation security. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA opposes this ill-advised change.”

The AFA-CWA’s website points to a 2005 survey by the National Consumer League and AFA, which reported that 63 percent of airline passengers opposed cell phone use on planes. It also lists a 2012 APEX/CEA poll in which 61 percent of Americans supported prohibiting the use of cell phones.

Many European and Asian carriers have been adopting new mobile technology over the last five years. Congress’ letter to Wheeler referred to an IHS study citing a recent 21 percent increase in global air carriers offering in-flight WiFi and cellular connectivity, with a projection that this number will reach 50 percent by 2022.

In May 2012, Virgin Atlantic was the first UK airline to offer mobile service from 35,000 feet via its partner AeroMobile. The system, available on all cabins of 17 aircraft in the fleet, is targeted toward business travelers. The service is not a free-for-all — it limits numbers of users at any one time (six) and doesn’t allow phone use during takeoff or landing or within 250 miles of US airspace.

Virgin Atlantic’s North America Communications Director, Sarah Coggins, told Yahoo Travel that the service has been well received. “Being connected to our friends, colleagues and family via the internet or our mobile devices is part of our everyday lives, and being able to extend this to our flights and allow our passengers to remain connected adds real value,” she said, adding that most people use their phoned to send a brief text or make a quick call.