FCC moves to allow in-flight cellphone use

The Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines on Thursday to consider a proposal to allow cellphone use on flights despite a major public backlash to the plan.

Lawmakers, passengers and the union for flight attendants have all slammed the move, saying people shouldn't be forced to listen to obnoxious phone conversations in a tight space. 

But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called the existing ban on in-flight cellphone use, which is based on interference concerns, "outdated."

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"I don’t want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," Wheeler said. But he noted that technology is already in use on flights in other countries to allow passengers to text, browse the Web and place calls without interfering with ground networks.

"In accord with that experience, and other data, the Commission’s engineers believe that there are no technical reasons to prohibit such technology to operate in the United States," he said. "If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid. It’s that simple."

The FCC will now begin accepting comments on its proposal before making a final decision. 

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement Thursday that in the wake of the FCC's action, he will consider banning in-flight phone calls. 

"As the FCC has said before, their sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight," Foxx said. "We believe USDOT’s role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers."

Wheeler said he is "pleased" with the potential action by the Transportation Department. 

If the FCC ultimately lifts its ban on all in-flight cellphone connectivity, and the Transportation Department enacts new rules against voice calls, passengers would be able to text and browse the Web while still being barred from making calls.

Even if the Transportation Department does nothing, it would still be up to individual airlines to decide whether to allow in-flight phone calls. 

Although passengers can already pay to access WiFi on some flights, the FCC's current rules ban them from accessing their mobile carrier's network.

Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel joined Wheeler in approving the step toward repealing the ban. But Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissented.

Pai questioned whether the FCC was appropriately taking into account the risk to public safety and national security. 

"Being annoyed at a chatty passenger during a flight is one thing. But flight safety is quite another," he said, warning the move could help terrorists coordinate a hijacking or lead to more "air-rage" incidents.