Washington – U.S. regulators Thursday opened the door to allowing mobile phone use on airplanes — an issue that has stirred howls of protest over the potential for disruption in the skies.
The Federal Communication Commission’s 3-2 vote came after chairman Tom Wheeler said the action would merely publish rules for public comment, and determine the technical feasibility of in-flight phone use.
“This is a rule about technology, this is not a rule about usage,” Wheeler said ahead of the vote.
He added that the issue has been “widely misunderstood” and that the agency was seeking to determine if there are no technical reasons for banning calling.
“If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid. It’s that simple,” he said.
Some 60 members of Congress signed a letter urging the regulatory agency to allow only text and Internet services in flight, without voice calls.
Wheeler said potential problems should be addressed in the rule-making process, and that other agencies as well as airlines would be charged with determining whether to permit voice calls during flight.
“Without this proposal, you would not be able to email or to text or surf the Web,” Wheeler said.
Separately, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx noted that the FCC’s only role “is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight.”
Foxx said in a statement that his agency’s responsibility “is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers” and “will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls.”
FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel voted to move forward on the proposal but voiced concern over the prospect on in-flight calls.
Rosenworcel said that even though the FCC members were considering the matter as “technicians,” that “does not absolve ourselves of the consequences of our decision.”
She added that she feared an end to the prevailing quiet atmosphere in airplane cabins and expressed concern “that our safety would be compromised” by allowing such calls.
Commissioner Ajit Pai voted against the proposal, saying it “sets an unfortunate precedent when it comes to licensing” of spectrum for in-flight communications.
Pai said the proposal would grant the spectrum to airlines at a time when mobile operators were spending “tens of billions” of dollars in spectrum auctions.
Additionally, Pai said safety and national security concerns had not been addressed and that he was disappointed there had been no comment from law enforcement agencies.
The FCC pointed out that foreign airlines have used onboard mobile access technology for years and that the agency “believes that these systems can be successfully deployed in the United States, and that the time has come to examine reforms to the agency’s outdated rules with respect to mobile wireless service onboard aircraft.”
The letter from lawmakers said they “support of new options for airline passengers to safely use wireless data” but are “adamantly opposed to the use of cellular voice services during flights.”
Swiss-based mobile communications firm OnAir said meanwhile it supported the FCC’s proposal, saying it “paves the way for U.S. passengers to have the same in-flight connectivity choices as passengers everywhere else in the world.”
“Over 4½ million passengers use OnAir in-flight connectivity each year, and what is very striking is that there has not been one single complaint about disruption caused by phone calls,” said Ian Dawkins, chief executive of OnAir. “Mobile OnAir is available on every continent apart from North America. People from all over the world, including Americans, use it every day.”
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA vowed to fight any rule allowing in-flight calls.
Union President Veda Shook said the issue “could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating risks that are far too great.”
“As the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, flight attendants understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment, and passengers agree,” she added. “Repeatedly, studies have shown that a large majority of the American public agrees that voice calls have no place inside the cabin.”