The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is reversing course on a years-long effort that would have allowed airline passengers to use their mobile phones for voice calls during flights. In a brief statement announcing the decision yesterday, recently appointed FCC chairman Ajit Pai said he didn't believe such a change was "in the public interest."
Airlines based in a number of countries, including Ireland and the United Arab Emirates, allow passengers to make inflight cellphone calls, while others permit the use of mobile devices only when they're set to flight mode. Phone calls during flight were originally prohibited due to concerns about potential interference with aviation communications, but technology advances such as satellite communications have reduced those concerns in recent years.
In late 2013, the FCC initiated proceedings to consider allowing U.S. carriers to install on-board equipment to support inflight wireless calls. While the change was supported by some industry organizations, polls have shown a large number of travelers opposed the move.
'Bad, Bad, Very Bad'
"I stand with airline pilots, flight attendants, and America's flying public against the FCC's ill-conceived 2013 plan to allow people to make cellphone calls on planes," Pai said. "I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest. Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet."
Industry groups including the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Information Technology Industry Council have voiced support for inflight calling.
In late 2014, the organizations submitted a joint letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) stating, "Rather than an a priori ban that limits airline and consumer choice, the department should permit U.S. airlines to retain the choice of offering applications such as text, mobile data, and voice that they determine best suit their passengers' needs."
The groups asserted that such a change would "enhance competition in the inflight connectivity market and the passenger experience onboard aircraft."
However, online citizen comments in response to a 2016 USDOT proposal to allow non-cellular-based inflight calling were largely negative, with people describing the change as "intrusive and disruptive," "bad, bad, very bad" and "very disturbing!"
In a 2014 analysis about inflight calling, the travel industry site Skift noted that providers of inflight Wi-Fi services such as OnAir can already enable voice calling, but airlines can choose to disable voice services.
The Association of Flight Attendants has opposed inflight voice calling, stating that such a change would "compromise flight attendants' ability to maintain order in an emergency, increase cabin noise and tension among passengers, and add unacceptable risk to aviation security."
The proposals backing inflight calls would benefit telecommunications companies rather than passengers, said John Dean, former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon, in a 2014 commentary for the legal Web site Justia. He added, "[I]f and when everyone starts yakking on their cells at 10,000 feet, I have a very attractive solution. I will simply stop flying any airline that allows cell calling."