The federal government on Thursday moved closer to allowing cellphone use during flights, but with a catch: Passengers won’t be able to use the devices to make calls.
If approved, the new rules would mean consumers could use their data plans to surf the Web or send e-mails and texts once a plane reaches 10,000 feet. But flights would remain free of the cacophony of people jabbering into their phones.
Many of the details have yet to be worked out. Federal transportation officials, for instance, said they did not yet know how they would stop — or whether they would penalize — passengers whose phones start to ring in the middle of a flight.
It was also unclear which airlines might offer the service and whether they would add charges for passengers who use data plans on a flight.
Last month, the government proposed allowing passengers to use their cellphones for anything they wanted, including calls. But the proposal immediately unleashed a storm of criticism from travelers, flight attendants and lawmakers.
Kim Hyers, who averages 150,000 airlines miles a year because of her business, said she was relieved to hear that the backlash may have pushed the government to consider the ban on phone calls.
“This sounds like a fantastic compromise,” said Hyers, a St. Paul, Minn.-based manager for consulting firm Accenture. “I love the idea of communicating with a client by e-mail for when I have a hot topic and e-mailing just can’t wait. But there’s something particularly abrasive about a phone conversation on a plane. . . . It’s just unbearable, and the idea of not being able to get away from that is a huge problem for me.”
The idea of allowing cellphone calls on planes was put forward last month by Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in an effort to update arcane agency rules. In the face of overwhelming criticism, Wheeler responded that he, too, did not want to sit next to a prattling cellphone user on a plane but that he also wanted to give airlines the ability to at least offer the service.
The proposal would not force airlines to install cellular technology on planes, he explained. It would merely give them the ability to offer the service.
His remarks did little to quell the outcry. Thousands of consumers called or e-mailed FCC offices in protest. Petitions were launched on the White House Web site to ban cellphones on planes. Democrats and Republicans, taking a break from their bickering on Capitol Hill, formed a united front against the idea.
“Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who co-sponsored a bill Thursday with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would prevent in-flight cellphone calls. Similar legislation was introduced in the House earlier in the week.
“This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts,” Alexander said.
A potential compromise emerged Thursday when the U.S. Transportation Department said it would consider its own rule that would ban calls but allow passengers to use their mobile devices for anything else.
In offering what is likely to be a popular solution, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx defended Wheeler’s original proposal. The FCC’s “sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight,” he said in a statement.
“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. We “will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls. As part of that process, USDOT will give stakeholders and the public significant opportunity to comment.”
For his part, Wheeler again defended his proposal Thursday, saying the agency has the responsibility to overturn an outdated 22-year ban on in-flight cellphone use. New wireless technology has resolved previous concerns about interference with the radio equipment used by pilots.
He said the FCC is not the “Federal Courtesy Commission” and is not expected to regulate the manners of passengers on planes.
“We simply propose that because new technology makes the old rule obsolete, the FCC should get government out from between airlines and their passengers,” Wheeler said. “Where there is not a need for regulation, the free market works best to determine the appropriate outcome.”
Not everyone at the FCC agreed. The agency’s five-member commission held a procedural vote that would allow the public to comment on the proposal. But even this step barely passed on a 3 to 2 vote, with two Democrats joining Wheeler, an appointee of President Obama.
At least one of those Democratic votes appeared to be reluctant. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said she favored receiving public comments on the technical aspects of the plan but expressed disdain for the rule.
“I do not like this proceeding. Because I believe as public servants we have a duty to look beyond these four walls and ask ourselves if our actions do, in fact, serve the public,” Rosenworcel said during the FCC vote. “When it comes to authorizing voice calls on planes, I think the answer is a resounding no. We are not just technicians.”
The FCC proposal was also received skeptically by the airlines, which will have the ultimate say on cellphones calls on flights.
Delta Air Lines said it will prohibit cellphone use, and other airlines may rely on polling passengers before offering the service. Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, said his company was opposed to allowing cellphone conversations.
“We’re evaluating the views of our customers and crew members on inflight calling, and at this time we don’t intend to permit use of cellphones,” said Luke Punzenberger, a spokesman for United Airlines.
American Airlines, which merged this week with US Airways to become the world’s largest passenger carrier, also said it would listen to its passengers.
“Currently, American’s in-flight WiFi doesn’t allow voice over IP calls,” said American spokesman Matt Miller. “We understand that this is an important issue to many of our customers, and we will certainly keep the wishes of our customers in mind should the rules governing cellphone use shift from the FCC to individual airlines.”
One veteran pilot feared his crew would be faced with even greater challenges to their jobs, if cell phone calls came to cabins.
“It’s not a good idea because the cabin crew basically becomes cell phone police,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear his airline might object to his comments. “If you have 400 conversations going on at the same time in a confined space, because of the nuisance factor, you could have altercations.”
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