As one part of the federal government looks to remove restrictions on making phone calls from airplanes, another agency is apparently considering its own prohibition.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler told members of Congress Thursday there is no longer any technical reason to ban calls on planes. He called rescinding the existing rule "the responsible thing to do."
But Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx may see things differently. In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Foxx said that given the DOT's role in consumer protection, his agency wants to determine if permitting phone calls "is fair to consumers" or if they should be banned. He noted that the FCC proposal has caused consternation among travelers, airlines and airline workers.
Calls during flights have been prohibited for 22 years over fears that they would interfere with cellular networks on the ground. Technological advances have resolved those concerns, which is one reason Wheeler wants to repeal the rule. He also wants the airlines, not the government, to have final say on in-flight calling.
But even Wheeler acknowledged the potential annoyance factor.
"I'm the last person in the world who wants to listen to somebody talking" while flying across the country, Wheeler said.
The FCC proposal comes just weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on using personal electronic devices such as iPads and Kindles below 10,000 feet, saying they don't interfere with cockpit instruments.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that 48 percent of Americans oppose allowing cellphones to be used for voice calls while flying; just 19 percent support it. Another 30 percent are neutral.
Among those who fly, opposition is stronger. Looking just at Americans who have taken more than one flight in the past year, 59 percent are against allowing calls on planes. That number grows to 78 percent among those who've taken four or more flights.
Delta Air Lines is the only airline to explicitly state that it won't allow voice calls. Delta says years of feedback from customers show "the overwhelming sentiment" is to keep the ban in place. American Airlines, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways all plan to study the issue and listen to feedback from passengers and crew.
Most Middle East airlines and a few in Asia and Europe already allow voice calls on planes. Southwest Airlines on Wednesday started allowing passengers to use iPhones to send and receive text messages while on board for $2 a day.
The nation's largest flight attendant union opposes a change, saying cellphone use could lead to fights between passengers.
The Telecommunications Industry Association, the cell phone providers' trade and lobbying group, is in support of the change. The association notes that in other countries that allow phone use, calls typically last one to two minutes and only a handful of people are using their phones at the same time. Additionally, many of the calls involve checking voicemail, with no speaking by the passenger.