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FCC Chief Says He's Personally Opposed To In-Flight Phone Calls

The new head of the Federal Communications Commission says his agency is reviewing restrictions on in-flight cellphone use. Here, a passenger looks at her cellphone before a flight last month.
Matt Slocum
/
AP
The new head of the Federal Communications Commission says his agency is reviewing restrictions on in-flight cellphone use. Here, a passenger looks at her cellphone before a flight last month.

Just a day after his agency said it was reviewing "outdated and restrictive rules" banning the use of cellphones during flights, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is tempering his statement.

"We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes," Tom Wheeler, who was confirmed for the job in late October, said in a statement on Friday. "I feel that way myself."

As we reported, the ink on Wheeler's original statement had barely dried, when the Association of Flight Attendants issued its own statement voicing opposition on behalf of itself and passengers.

"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."

After public opposition mounted, Wheeler issued another statement toning down his first, short statement. Wheeler said that before any rule on phone use is lifted, there will be a period of public comment. Also, even if it is lifted — the FCC, he added makes determinations based on technical reasons — it would be up to the airlines to decide whether in-flight phone use is a good idea.

"We believe that airlines are best positioned to make such decisions. For this reason, our proposal does not impose any requirement that airlines should provide voice connectivity," Wheeler said. "We encourage airlines, pilots, flight attendants, and the public to engage in our upcoming rulemaking process."

As Bill noted in our previous report on the subject, the same kind of proposal was made by the FCC back in 2004. It was ultimately dropped because of oppositions from groups worried about the distraction it would cause on a plane.

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

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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