After backlash on plan to allow in-flight calls, FCC chief backs off

November 22, 2013

When the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission unveiled a proposal this week to allow cellphone calls and Internet service during airline flights, he said it was time to reevaluate an “outdated and restrictive” ban.

He added that a revision to 20-year-old rules would “expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband.”

Now, after fierce criticism from consumers, airline employee unions and lawmakers, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appears to be distancing himself from the plan, observers say.

Wheeler said in a statement Friday that the FCC merely approves the technical specifications of using cellphone service on planes. The airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, he said, will ultimately decide if they want to unleash phone conversation in airline cabins.

In fact, the newly appointed head of the FCC said he doesn’t even like the idea of chattering from airline seat mates.

“We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes. I feel that way myself,” said Wheeler, just three weeks into his chairmanship.

The former head lobbyist of wireless and cable industry trade groups added: “Ultimately, if the FCC adopts the proposal in the coming months, it will be airlines’ decisions, in consultation with their customers, as to whether to permit voice calls while airborne.”

But airline industry experts and the flight attendants’ union said they view the FCC chairman’s decision to introduce the proposal as his tacit endorsement of the plan. And they disagree with the notion that the agency is simply considering technical specifications. Eight years ago, the FCC scrapped a similar proposal after strong protests by flight attendants and consumers.

“The FCC is the last stop; they are the ones with jurisdiction over airwaves and they are the ones that ultimately hold the ban,” said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

“The FCC was the only thing holding up cellphone calls,” said John E. Discala, a travel industry writer who has followed the debate about online communications for his blog. “Not all airlines will want to allow phone calling, but it’s another source of revenue for them. Imagine selling sections for more that are quiet zones.”

But the FCC said the chairman doesn’t necessarily endorse the proposal, which will come under consideration at an agency meeting next month. The idea of revising the in-flight cellphone rules began before Wheeler’s arrival, according to officials. The agency wanted to change the rules because technology has improved to make in-flight communications safer. European airlines have implemented cellular services in planes and have proved it can be safe, the agency said.

“It does not mean the Commission has endorsed phone calls from airplanes,” the FCC said in a fact sheet released Friday. “The FCC is considering whether advances in technology no longer warrant — on a technological basis — the prohibition of in-flight mobile phone use. This is purely a technical decision.”

It’s unclear whether the five-member panel will vote to proceed with the proposal next month. The FCC has been inundated with e-mails from consumers asking the agency to reconsider. In a poll on The Washington Post Web site, 91 percent of 1,700 respondents said they were against the idea of phone calls on airplanes.

Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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