Moves to allow in-flight phone use spark outrage

Travelers opposed to overhearing inane, loud, personal conversations


The complaints started getting loud almost immediately after U.S. regulators said they were considering allowing passengers to use cellphones on airplanes.

In petitions, on social media and in press releases, the grumbling began within hours after the Federal Communications Commission said the question will be discussed at a Dec. 12 meeting. The Association of Flight Attendants said it firmly opposed a rule change, citing “the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment.”

“Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe,” the union statement said. “In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating negative effects on aviation safety and security that are great and far too risky.”

More than 1,000 people added their names within a day to an online petition to the White House asking to block any rule change.

“During flights, passengers are forced into a restricted space, often for long periods of time,” the petition stated. “Forcing them to listen to the inane, loud, private, personal conversations of a stranger is perhaps the worst idea the FCC has come up with to date. This would make an already cranky, uncomfortable travel experience exponentially worse. . . . Just because we CAN use our phones at 30,000 feet doesn’t mean that we SHOULD be able to.”

An online survey by the news site MarketWatch found 83 percent opposed calling on planes, while only 6 percent favored it.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Friday moved to clarify that his agency is only reviewing technical considerations, and will not be in a position of telling airlines they need to allow phone usage.

“We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes,” he said in a statement. “I feel that way myself. Ultimately, if the FCC adopts the proposal in the coming months, it will be airlines’ decisions, in consultation with their customers, as to whether to permit voice calls while airborne.”

An FCC fact sheet said the December meeting will consider “whether advances in technology no longer warrant — on a technological basis — the prohibition of in-flight mobile phone use.”

The move comes just weeks after regulators broadened permissions for the use of electronics in flight, including during takeoff and landing, as long as they remained disconnected from Internet and broadband services.

OnAir, a provider of in-flight wireless services, welcomed the FCC move, saying its service has been used on thousands of flights around the world since 2007 and that “there has not been a single complaint about disruption caused by people making calls.”

Ian Dawkins, chief executive of OnAir, said: “Forget the hyperbole about the chaos in-flight cellphone usage could cause. The issue simply hasn’t arisen anywhere in the world in the past six years. An aircraft is a noisy environment, so the sound of a conversation doesn’t carry very far. Flight attendants can also control the use of Mobile OnAir by disabling the voice element during quiet times.”