A bill to ban in-flight calls just cleared a key House committee vote

February 11

When the Federal Communications Commission said last year it was going to relax the rules on using cellphones on airplanes, it touched off a firestorm of public criticism. Nobody likes a chatty seatmate. Some called for the Department of Transportation to ban in-flight calling altogether.

Tuesday, a House panel took a step in that direction, passing a bill that would require the DOT to impose such a prohibition. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said his bill would restore balance to airplane cabins everywhere.

"My message is simple when it comes to cellphones on planes," wrote Shuster in an op-ed Monday. "Tap, don’t talk."

In fairness to the FCC, telecom regulators never suggested that people should be breaching the sacred metal tube of aerial silence.

"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," Wheeler said in a statement amid the outcry. "But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission."

But as the agency in charge of determining whether wireless devices pose a threat to safety, the FCC's ban on in-flight cellphone use dates back decades. Until recently, some believed that radio interference from the devices would endanger aircraft. Now the FCC believes the risk to planes is minimal.

Relaxing the ban means passengers will be allowed to use other mobile services — such as text messaging and mobile data — in addition to voice while in the air.

A recent poll by the Associated Press found 59 percent of Americans who've taken more than one flight in the past year are opposed to in-flight calling. Among frequent fliers, such as those who've flown four times or more in the same period, 78 percent are opposed.

Shuster's bill now heads to the House floor.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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