Cellphone calls on planes? Don’t ask the feds
By JOAN LOWY
the associated press | February 22,2014
ap file photo
The U.S. Transportation Department signals that it wants to impose a ban on inflight cellphone calls, just two months after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to pursue lifting the current ban.
WASHINGTON — It looks like the government is more conflicted about cellphones on planes than most travelers. Even as one federal agency considers allowing the calls, another now wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Passengers — particularly those who fly often — oppose allowing calls in flight, polls show. In line with that sentiment, the Department of Transportation signaled in a 22-page notice posted online Friday that it wants to retain a ban on the calls. But the notice comes just two months after the Federal Communications Commission voted to pursue lifting the ban.
Transportation regulates aviation consumer issues. The FCC has responsibility over whether the use of cellphones in flight would interfere with cellular networks on the ground.
Congress is also getting into the act. Lawmakers are pushing legislation to require transportation regulators to implement a ban on the calls.
Echoing some travelers’ concerns, the Transportation Department said in its notice on Friday that it believes allowing passengers to make cellphone calls “may be harmful or injurious” to other passengers.
This is because “people tend to talk louder on cellphones than when they’re having face-to-face conversations,” the department said. “They are also likely to talk more and further increase the noise on a flight, as passengers would not be simply talking to the persons sitting next to them but can call whomever they like.”
Some planes already have seat-back phones in place, but they are rarely used, it said.
The “concern is not about individual calls, but rather the cumulative impact of allowing in-flight calls in close quarters,” the department said.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll three months ago, 48 percent of those surveyed opposed letting cellphones be used for voice calls while planes are in flight, while 19 percent were in favor and 30 percent were neutral. Among those who’d flown four or more times in the previous year, the rate of opposition soared to 78 percent.
Delta Air Lines told the government last year that 64 percent of its passengers indicated that the ability to make phone calls in flight would have a negative impact on their onboard experience.
Among the most ardent opponents of lifting the current ban are flight attendants, who worry that phone conversation will spark arguments between passengers and even acts of violence.
“Allowing passengers to use cellphones during commercial flights will add unacceptable risks to aviation security, compromise a flight attendant’s ability to maintain order in an emergency, increase cabin noise and tension among passengers and interfere with crewmembers in the performance of their duties as first responders in the cabin,” said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 60,000 flight attendants at 19 carriers.
The current FCC ban was adopted in 1991 based on concern the calls planes might interfere with cellular networks on the ground, but technological advances have resolved those worries. In 2005, the FCC cleared the way for airlines to begin offering Wi-Fi in flight.