With the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and major airlines preparing to loosen restrictions on in-flight cell phone use, the Department of Transportation has moved closer to formal rules barring calls in the sky.
Kathryn Thomson, the DOT’s general counsel, said in a speech last week at the International Aviation Club in Washington that the agency is working on “a notice of proposed rulemaking” for publication in December. “At this point there is no final determination” on what the final policy will mandate, another spokeswoman said.
The FCC last year suggested ending rules prohibiting use of cell phones on planes that were adopted more than 20 years ago to protect against radio interference to cell phone networks on the ground. The FCC said it believes that is no longer a concern, but it has yet to issue a formal rule change; any Transportation Department rule barring voice calls would take precedence. While texting and data use are now permissible on most flights, major airlines say they want the final call on in-flight cell phone use. The carriers assert that the DOT doesn’t have the authority to create such a rule.
"Airlines aren't clamoring to allow mobile-phone use during flight, and some have already said they'd prohibit it on their own flights," Jeffrey Shane, general counsel for the International Air Transport Association, told the Wall Street Journal. But the former senior Transportation Department policy maker said some carriers may want to explore less annoying ways to introduce calls, such as in-flight phone booths or quiet zones.
The idea of allowing cell phone calls on planes was put forward last year by Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, in an effort to update arcane agency rules. In February, the government requested public and industry comment on cell phone use on planes. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said that respondents overwhelmingly favored banning in-flight cell phone calls.
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Kim Hyers, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based manager for consulting firm Accenture, told the Washington Post that she averages 150,000 airlines miles per year. Hyers said that in-flight texting and email is one thing, but having no choice but to listen to other travelers talk is an entirely different matter.
“This sounds like a fantastic compromise,” Hyers said about the DOT's proposals. “I love the idea of communicating with a client by email for when I have a hot topic and emailing just can’t wait. But there’s something particularly abrasive about a phone conversation on a plane … It’s just unbearable, and the idea of not being able to get away from that is a huge problem for me.”