Agencies differ on allowing in-flight phone calls

WASHINGTON – Just because it’s safe to use cellphones on a plane, it doesn’t mean that passengers should call just to say hello.

That argument played out across Washington Thursday as one government agency voted to remove its prohibition of in-flight calls while another considered its own ban.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to start a months-long public comment process to remove its restriction.

“There is a need to recognize that there is a new technology,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “This is a technical rule. It is a rule about technology. It is not a rule of usage.”

But the Department of Transportation, which oversees aviation, isn’t so sure that permitting calls “is fair to consumers.”

“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,” DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

The DOT will consider its own ban as part of its consumer protection role.

Calls during flights have been prohibited for 22 years over fears that they would interfere with cellular networks on the ground. Technological advances have resolved those concerns, which is one reason Wheeler wants to repeal the rule. He also wants the airlines, not the government, to have final say on in-flight calling.

But even Wheeler acknowledged the potential annoyance factor.

“I’m the last person in the world who wants to listen to somebody talking” while flying across the country, Wheeler told a House subcommittee Thursday morning.

The FCC proposal comes just weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on using personal electronic devices such as iPads and Kindles below 10,000 feet, saying they don’t interfere with cockpit instruments.

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that 48 percent of Americans oppose allowing cellphones to be used for voice calls while flying; just 19 percent support it. Another 30 percent are neutral.

Among those who fly, opposition is stronger. Looking just at Americans who have taken more than one flight in the past year, 59 percent are against allowing calls on planes. That number grows to 78 percent among those who’ve taken four or more flights.