FCC Jettisons Plan To Allow In-Flight Cellphone Calls On Commercial Flights

Delta Airplane

Passengers on commercial airplanes will not be making phone calls from their smartphones while in-flight anytime soon. Technological barriers notwithstanding, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai is withdrawing a proposal introduced in 2013 by his predecessor that would have allowed air travelers to use their handsets for voice communication at high altitudes.

Pai called the proposal "ill-conceived," adding that it was not in the best interest of the public who would rather have peace and quiet rather than listen to others chatter on their phones while taking to the skies.

"I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest," Pai said in a statement. "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."

Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler had proposed doing away with regulation that bans passengers from using cellular phones on flights. The regulation arose over concerns that mobile phone signals could interfere with radio communications in the cockpit. However, advances in technology and in-flight communications have minimized those concerns, prompting Wheeler to argue that the ban could be safely lifted.

The proposal would still have required passengers to keep their phones turned off or in airplane mode during takeoff and landing. However, passengers would have been allowed to use their connections in between those periods while at cruising altitude.

Trade groups representing pilots and flight attendants criticized the proposal. Those opposed to relaxing the rules feared that passengers hoping for a quiet flight would be disturbed by others around them making phone calls. Wheeler ended up abandoning the proposal.

"The FCC is making the right decision not to pursue lifting the ban on in-flight calls," said Taylor Garland, a spokesman for The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. "The traveling public and crew members do not want voice calls on planes."

As for using data connections during flights, Garland was a bit more open to the idea, though cautioned that a "thorough assessment of the potential security risks" would be in order.

It is not easy getting a cellular signal at cruising altitude. Had Wheeler's proposal gone through, it would have been up to each individual airline to decide how to support making phone calls while in-flight. It would have also created competition for in-flight Wi-Fi services, which are criticized as being expensive and slow.