Mixed signals over in-flight use of cellphones

WASHINGTON – When it comes to deciding whether airline passengers can use their cellphones in flight, federal agencies are sending different signals to consumers.

The Transportation Department, which regulates aviation consumer issues, indicated in a notice posted online Friday that it is considering retaining the 23-year-old ban on the calls, and asked for public comment.

Two months ago, the Federal Communications Commission voted to pursue allowing the calls. The FCC has responsibility for determining whether the use of cellphones in flight would interfere with cellular networks on the ground.

Polls show that many passengers, particularly frequent fliers, oppose allowing in-flight calls from passengers’ cellphones. Echoing their concerns, the Transportation Department said it believes allowing passengers to make cellphone calls “may be harmful or injurious” to others.

“People tend to talk louder on cellphones than when they’re having face-to-face conversations,” the department said. “They are also likely to talk more and further increase the noise on a flight, as passengers would not be simply talking to the persons sitting next to them but can call whomever they like.”

Some planes already have seat-back phones, but they are rarely used, the department said, adding that the concern “is not about individual calls, but rather the cumulative impact of allowing in-flight calls in close quarters.”

At the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants to repeal the ban on cellphone use in flight, calling it restrictive and outdated. He also wants the airlines, not the government, to have final say on in-flight calling. He declined to comment Friday on the Transportation Department’s notice.