Bloomberg News

Air Travelers Seen Spared Phone-Call Nuisance by U.S. Agencies

December 13, 2013

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), speaks during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 12, 2013. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Air travelers may be spared the annoyance of loud mobile-phone conversations by two U.S. regulators considering whether to allow cellular connections during commercial flights.

The Transportation Department will conclude if using cellular service for voice calls in-flight serves consumers, while the Federal Communications Commission weighs an end to rules that have barred cell-phone use on aircraft since the 1990s. Together, the agencies may decide to block voice calls while permitting other uses, such as texting and e-mail.

That would allow the FCC to achieve Chairman Tom Wheeler’s goals of eliminating outdated standards and creating competition for in-flight connectivity, while not opening the way for calls in crowded cabins that risk provoking air rage.

“I look forward to using my device to check e-mails, to send texts, to surf the Web,” Wheeler told reporters yesterday after his proposal to end the ban advanced on 3-2 vote. “I certainly empathize with those who don’t want to be stuck beside loud conversations.”

The FCC voted along party lines for Wheeler’s plan, with Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel criticizing it while agreeing to back her fellow Democrat. The proposal needs a second vote, after a public comment period, to take effect.

Before the FCC vote, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he would use his authority over airline consumer affairs to decide whether voice calls are fair. In a statement, Foxx said his agency heard from “travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight –- and I am concerned about this possibility as well.”

Airplane Nodes

Members of Congress have introduced legislation to block voice calling, and flight attendants have vowed to fight the Wheeler proposal.

The FCC’s ban was put in place because mobile phones traveling at 300 miles (483 kilometers) an hour in the skies may interfere with ground networks.

The new technology -- already in use on some carriers in Europe and Asia -- would require airlines to install special equipment, Wheeler said. Carriers must install a cellular node on a plane so that passenger devices will connect at low power, preventing interference with ground stations, he said.

The node would then funnel calls and data transfers to the ground via satellites or a separate air-to-ground network, he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, an arm of the Transportation Department, on Oct. 31 lifted a separate ban on use of personal electronic devices that connect via Wi-Fi radio bands.

Connection Competition

Airlines need to show the FAA they can operate safely with passengers’ devices turned on. Three that have done so -- Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL:US), United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US) and US Airways Group, now part of American Airlines Group Inc. (AAL:US) -- won’t allow voice calls over their onboard Wi-Fi systems provided by Gogo Inc., based in Itasca, Illinois.

Gogo Chief Executive Officer Michael Small at a conference Dec. 11 said the FCC decision is “not particularly consequential” for his company because there is demand for connectivity for reasons other than voice calls.

While passengers may be able to perform many of the same functions with e-mail and the Internet using Wi-Fi, adding cellular connectivity on planes increases competition and may lower prices for access, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said.

The Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest union for cabin crews, is beginning a campaign to reverse the FCC decision, it said in an e-mailed release.

Public Safety

“Flight attendants and passengers are united on this issue –- there should be no voice calls in flight,” Veda Shook, the union’s president, said in the release. Allowing phone use “would have negative effects on aviation safety and security.”

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai voted against the measure, citing an e-mail from a person who he said feared reacting badly if stuck next to a “gabber” during a long flight.

“Although I’m pretty sure that I could resist the urge to stab a fellow passenger, I understand these sentiments and share these concerns,” Pai said.

He said Wheeler’s proposal may jeopardize safety by making it easier for terrorists to coordinate hijackings or detonate bombs.

The measure “does not adequately address public safety and national security,” Pai said.

Lawmaker Objections

Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said yesterday that he supports Foxx’s effort.

“If DOT has determined they have the authority to keep a ban on in-flight calls in place, then I look forward to working with them to ensure something the public supports by a two-to-one margin,” Shuster said.

Shuster, joined by Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, and others, introduced legislation Dec. 9 to block airline calls.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, yesterday introduced a similar measure. He was joined by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

“Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense,” Alexander said in a news release.

Alexander’s bill would allow the use of Internet-connected personal electronic devices such as Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN:US)’s Kindles and iPads from Apple Inc. (AAPL:US) during flight, the uses the FAA recently approved.

Anger Generated

Not all FCC members who voted for the measure endorsed airborne phone calling.

“I do not like this,” Rosenworcel said during the agency’s meeting. “Given the anger this proposal has generated and the negative response of so many of those who work on planes, I fear that our safety would be compromised. This is not acceptable.”

Rosenworcel voted for the measure, saying “it is good to ask questions.”

She added, “When it comes to authorizing voice calls on planes, I think the answer is a resounding no.”

OnAir, which offers a satellite-based service that lets people connect using their smartphones through onboard network, said it supports the FCC proposal. Geneva-based OnAir’s clients include British Airways Plc, Singapore Airlines Ltd. (SIA) and OAO Aeroflot. (AFLT)

No Complaints

More than “four and a half 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,” Ian Dawkins, chief executive officer of closely held OnAir, said in a news release distributed by PR Newswire.

Ten U.S. representatives in a letter told Wheeler they support his proposal even as they oppose voice calls in airlines, because rules should keep pace with technology.

More in-flight connectivity would give U.S. domestic fliers capabilities available elsewhere in the world, the lawmakers said in the Dec. 11 letter to Wheeler that the FCC distributed by e-mail.

The signers included Representative Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat, and Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat who serves on the House communications panel.

To contact the reporter on this story: Todd Shields in Washington at tshields3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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