Government Debates Over Possible Move To Lift In-Flight Mobile Ban
December 13, 2013

Government Debates Over Possible Move To Lift In-Flight Mobile Ban

Peter Suciu for - Your Universe Online

On Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to consider whether the decades-old ban on in-flight mobile phones should be lifted. On the same day the federal Department of Transportation, along with three members of Congress, asked for legislation to hang up calls on planes altogether.

The Secretary of Transportation Anthony Fox released a statement noting that he is considering the possibility of banning in-flight calls. He cited its aviation consumer protection authority, and the DOT will rule on whether allowing calls would be “fair to consumers.”

The FCC, however, will now begin a public comment process that could lift the restrictions.

“There is a need to recognize that there is a new technology,” FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler said in a statement, as cited by the Washington Post. “This is a technical rule. It is a rule about technology. It is not a rule of usage.”

Not all agree with that assessment of the situation, however. The DOT for its part, along with members of Congress, is looking at whether phone calls on planes could be bothersome to other travelers.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight -- and I am concerned about this possibility, as well,” Foxx said in a statement, as cited by CNN.

On Capitol Hill it is also a bi-partisan issue. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) introduced legislation on Thursday that would ban mobile phone conversations on commercial airline flights; while House Rep Bill Shuster (R-Penn) introduced similar legislation. Shuster’s bill would prohibit in-flight voice communications but it would allow texting and sending of email.

The fact that two different government agencies are looking at this matter is notable, but each agency is coming at this with specific concerns.

The DOT, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is entrusted with safe air travel, but also serves to protect the rights of air travelers – and this would include sparing travelers from so-called annoying flights, as well as considering benefits that mobile phone use could provide.

The FAA on October 31 had lifted a ban on the use of personal electronic devices that connect via Wi-Fi radio bands, and this means that fliers could use such devices such as table computers and laptops “gate-to-gate.”

The FCC on the other hand had banned in-flight calls not because it might annoy someone, but over technical concerns that it could interfere with ground communication – such as radio and TV transmitters.

The FCC’s turnaround on this decision has been met with criticism, so much so that the new head of the agency weighed in on the issue.

“I’m the last person in the world who wants to listen to someone talking to me while I fly across the country,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told a congressional panel Thursday, as reported by CNN. “But we are the technical agency, and we will make the rules for the way the new technology works.”

Even if the phone call ban were to be lifted, individual airlines could still have the final say. It was reported that Delta Air Lines has already announced that it would not allow voice calls regardless of whether a ban is lifted.

Delta, along with United Continental Holdings Inc. and US Airways Group, now part of American Airlines Group, have said that they won’t allow voice calls either, but these carriers have provided the FAA with the required assurance that they can operate safely with other electronic devices turned on.