In-flight phone call ban considered by Department of Transportation

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler told members of Congress there is no longer a technical reason for the FCC to ban calls on planes, but the Department of Transportation will be moving forward with its own restrictions.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler told members of Congress there is no longer a technical reason for the FCC to ban calls on planes, but the Department of Transportation will be moving forward with its own restrictions.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will consider a ban on in-flight calls aboard airliners, the agency’s leader said Thursday.

The DOT, which oversees consumer protection of airline passengers, will seek public comment on whether allowing such calls “is fair to consumers,” Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

The action comes as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission Thursday considers eliminating its ban on in-flight phone calling that has been in place since the 1990s.

“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.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told lawmakers Thursday that ending restrictions on cellular calls by airline passengers “is the responsible thing to do.”

Concerns that phone calls would interfere with ground-based cellular networks have been lifted by technological advances, Wheeler said at a House hearing ahead of today’s FCC vote.

“When the rationale for the rule doesn’t exist, the rule shouldn’t exist,” Wheeler said.

Lawmakers and many frequent fliers have criticized Wheeler’s proposal, saying passengers won’t want to be confined in an airplane cabin with blabbering seatmates. A vote Thursday by the five-member FCC would set up a comment period, and final approval would need a second vote by the communications agency.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, introduced legislation to prohibit mobile phone conversations on commercial airline flights. He was joined by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

“Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense,” Alexander said.

The bill would allow the use of Internet-connected personal electronic devices such as Amazon.com Inc.‘s Kindles and iPads from Apple Inc. during flight, which the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently approved.

Representative Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced a similar bill on Dec. 9.

“I understand the consternation caused by the thought of your onboard seatmate disturbing the flight making phone calls,” Wheeler said in written testimony submitted for the congressional hearing. “I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission.”

Geneva-based OnAir, which offers a satellite-based service that lets people connect using their smartphones through onboard network, today said it supports the FCC proposal. OnAir clients include British AirwaysSingapore Airlines Ltd. and Aeroflot.

Ten U.S. representatives in a letter told Wheeler they support his proposal even as they oppose voice calls in airlines, because rules should keep pace with technology. More in-flight connectivity would give U.S. domestic fliers capabilities available elsewhere in the world, the lawmakers said in a Dec. 11 letter to Wheeler.

Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

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