FCC sees backlash after proposing to allow in-flight cellphone calls on planes

The FCC is considering lifting a ban that prohibits cellphone use onboard flights. (Reuters)
November 21, 2013

Air travel may get a lot chattier with a new federal proposal to allow cellphone calls on airplanes.

The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday that it will consider rules that would allow air travelers to make calls and use their cellular data plans once a plane reaches 10,000 feet. Restrictions would remain for takeoffs and landings.

The proposal, which will be raised at the commission’s meeting next month, has the backing of the agency’s newly appointed chairman. But the idea is bound to be controversial. Within hours of the announcement, consumers flooded the agency with protests.

One FCC commissioner received hundreds of e-mails complaining that the move would lead to unbearable noise pollution, an aide said. Passengers are already crammed into smaller seats and tighter rows, and being forced to listen to one another’s calls would be yet another indignity, they wrote.

A petition quickly went up on the White House Web site Thursday, asking the Obama administration to stop the effort. “This would make an already cranky, uncomfortable travel experience exponentially worse, and as a frequent flier and concerned citizen, I think the administration ne eds to nip this in the bud,” a resident from Richmond wrote.

Wendy Evans, a San Diego resident who frequently travels to Seattle, Las Vegas and the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina for work and to visit family, mourned the potential loss of one of the last refuges from cellphones.

“I travel a lot and consider my time in the air a chance for many things — reading, thinking, sleeping or catching up on work but certainly not for listening to people chat on the phone,” she said.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the two-decade-old rule banning calls is out of date, and recent research rebuts concerns that radio signals from devices could interfere with a pilot’s operation of a plane.

“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” Wheeler said in a statement. He said the effort would open up “new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

After voting Dec. 12 on whether to put the proposal out for public comment, the FCC could hold a final vote within a few months. The move comes weeks after the FAA cleared the use of electronic devices during takeoffs and landings.

Wheeler, a Democrat, would need the support of the majority of the five-member commission, which has two other Democrats and two Republicans. The cellphone use proposal does not need congressional approval.

If approved, the new guidelines would give airlines the ability to install special equipment to relay wireless signals from the plane to the ground, but the companies would not be obligated to do so. Cellphone calls are already permitted on some European flights.

The FCC made a similar proposal in 2004, but it was dropped three years later in the face of stiff opposition from flight attendants and other groups worried about the distractions of constantly ringing phones and people talking on their devices while others are trying to sleep.

Technology firms have pushed for looser rules for devices and cellphones on planes. They applauded recent efforts by the FAA to allow the use of electronics during takeoffs and landings. And they supported a separate effort by the FCC in May to help bolster the speed of WiFi connections on flights.

“We are pleased that the FCC is moving forward to review its rules relevant to the use of wireless devices on airplanes,” said Julie Kearney, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association. She added that the rules would have to strike a “critical balance between ensuring airline travel safety and allowing airline passengers to use their devices to stay connected, informed and entertained while on board.”

WiFi connections are becoming common on flights, allowing passengers to use e-mail and stream videos. Some flights offer phone service through handsets attached to the backs of seats. But that service is rarely used, partly because the fees are so high, analysts say.

Flight attendants said cellphone calls could create another distraction during safety announcements. And there is the potential for “air rage,” some analysts say.

Consumer surveys show passenger satisfaction consistently has declined over the years, even though overall prices have fallen. Traveling by air has long lost its veneer as a special experience in which white-glove service was standard. Now charges are attached to luggage, food and even the guarantee of a specific seat in coach class.

“Passengers overwhelmingly reject cellphone use in the aircraft cabin. The FCC should not proceed with this proposal,” the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement. “Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe.”

Even among some frequent business travelers, the idea of being trapped next to a passenger yapping into a cellphone evoked dread.

“I would rather insert sharp objects under my fingernails than have to sit next to that,” said Larry Irving, a technology consultant and a former assistant secretary of commerce during the Clinton administration. Irving, who logs 150,000 to 200,000 miles of air travel each year, doubts airlines can create a quiet, cellphone-free section, even in business class.

“The problem is there is no way to get away,” he said.

Brian Fung contributed to this report.

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

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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