FCC opens door to allowing cell phone calls on airplanes

The FCC will explore whether to allow wireless voice calls on U.S. flights, opening up a potentially contentious debate over what kind of mobile use is socially acceptable on airplanes.

The commission placed the item on its agenda for its December meeting, and said it will consider a notice of proposed rulemaking "to revise outdated rules and provide airlines with the ability to permit passengers to use mobile wireless services via onboard airborne access systems."

According to the Wall Street Journal, while cell phone use would still be prohibited during takeoff and landing, the rules would lift an FCC ban on airborne calls and cellular data use by passengers once a flight hits 10,000 feet. The rules would only be provisional and the FCC would solicit feedback before deciding to amend them.

However, individual airlines would have to decide whether to allow cell phone use, and many may not do so to head off potential customer complaints. Airlines would also need to install equipment on planes that could communicate with cell towers on the ground.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement that the new rules, if adopted, would "expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband," meaning the commission thinks both Wi-Fi and wireless cellphone data plans could be used.

"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," he said. "I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

The FCC decision comes just weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration said that airline passengers will be able to use mobile devices placed in "airplane mode" during all phases of flights, including takeoff and landings. That ruling continued to prohibit voice calls and cellular data usage.

Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Virgin America said Thursday that they do not plan on supporting in-flight phone calls, according to the Journal. "Years of customer feedback" show that "the overwhelming sentiment is to continue with a policy that would not allow voice communications while in flight," Delta said. United Continental said it would evaluate the FCC rules and JetBlue Airways said it would be open to changing its rules.

According to the New York Times, the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing airline workers, came out quickly against the proposed rules. "Flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment," the union said in a statement. "Any situation that is loud, divisive and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this NYT article
- see this Washington Post article

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