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Prepare For Cabin Noise: FCC May End Ban On Phones During Flights

The new head of the Federal Communications Commission proposes allowing airline passengers to make phone calls during flights. Here, a passenger looks at her cellphone before a flight last month.
Matt Slocum
The new head of the Federal Communications Commission proposes allowing airline passengers to make phone calls during flights. Here, a passenger looks at her cellphone before a flight last month.

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing a change to allow travelers to make phone calls as they fly on jetliners in the U.S. The agency's new chairman, Tom Wheeler, calls the current ban on the use of cellphones during flights "outdated and restrictive."

Here's a statement from Wheeler that was released Thursday:

"Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband. Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. 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 plans to hold a discussion about the proposed change at an upcoming open meeting set for Dec. 12, when it says it will consider giving airlines "the ability to permit passengers to use mobile wireless services via onboard airborne access systems."

News of the proposed change brought opposition from the Association of Flight Attendants, which issued a statement of its own that noted not only their own resistance, but that of passengers, as well.

"Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe," the organization said. "Many polls and surveys conducted over the years find that a vast majority of the traveling public wants to keep the ban on voice calls in the aircraft cabin."

The proposal comes "just 16 days after Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cellular telephone industry, took over the post of FCC chairman," the AP reports. "The proposal to ease cellphone restrictions was greeted enthusiastically by the Telecommunications Industry Association."

At the end of October, the Federal Aviation Administration changed its guidance to allow passengers to use electronic devices such as tablets and e-books on jetliners "gate to gate."

That decision cited a September report that also included this line regarding a survey of passengers' feelings about the use of cellphones on planes:

"However, six in ten (61 percent) airline passengers believe that making cell phone calls should be restricted during flights, mainly due to the potential distractions it would cause for other passengers."

That study also found that 79 percent of the respondents said they had accidentally left their smartphone or cellphone turned on during a flight.

This isn't the first time U.S. regulators have looked at dropping the ban on phone calls during flights.

As The Washington Post reports, "The FCC made a similar proposal in 2004, but it was dropped three years later in the face of opposition from flight attendants and other groups worried about the distractions of constantly ringing phones and people talking on their devices while others are trying to sleep."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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