Federal regulators are withdrawing a proposal that would have allowed air travelers to use their cellphones at high altitude.
The proposal — introduced in 2013 by then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler — sought to roll back a long-standing regulation that banned the use of cellphones on planes over concerns that cellular signals could interfere with pilot radios. New advances in in-flight communications have minimized those concerns, Wheeler argued at the time, a trend that meant the ban could be lifted.
Under the proposal, passengers would still have been required to keep their phones turned off or on airplane mode during takeoff and landing, but they could have switched on their connections at cruising altitude.
The decision Monday to reverse the proposal came from Wheeler's successor, Ajit Pai. Calling the plan “ill-conceived,” Pai said in a statement that he did not believe it served the public interest.
“Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet,” Pai said. He did not elaborate on why he chose this moment to act.
The proposal was initially met with public backlash, particularly from trade groups representing pilots and flight attendants. Many opponents argued that relaxation of the ban would result in passengers disturbing one another with noisy phone calls, and Wheeler was effectively forced to abandon the issue for the remainder of his term.
The Consumer Technology Association, which supported the proposal, declined to comment. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which opposed the proposal, welcomed its demise.
"The FCC is making the right decision not to pursue lifting the ban on in-flight calls," said Taylor Garland, a spokesman for the labor union. "The traveling public and crew members do not want voice calls on planes."
Asked whether the union also took a position on the use of cellular data on planes, Garland said "due diligence requires a thorough assessment of the potential security risks… and mitigation of any risks."
While most consumers may have difficulty getting a cellular signal at 30,000 feet, changes in technology are increasingly enabling the use of cellular networks in the air. Communications satellites, drones and even lasers have been proposed as ways to get connectivity to hard-to-reach areas. This could ultimately mean more competition against in-flight WiFi, which is often derided as expensive and slow.
Had Wheeler's proposal been approved, it would have fallen to individual airlines to decide how and when to equip their planes with equipment to support in-flight cellular service. In a testimony before Congress, Wheeler said that the Federal Aviation Administration would work on crafting a rule to address voice calls on planes. The FAA had previously ruled that it is safe to switch on small electronic devices during all phases of flight, provided the devices are on airplane mode.