Disputes that often seem petty on the ground can quickly turn heated in the cramped, pressurized confines of an airplane cabin — from an aviation executive’s fit about bagged macadamia nuts to actor Alec Baldwin’s refusal to stop playing the cellphone game “Words with Friends.”
The incidents have also spurred a debate about passenger behavior, particularly fueling a call to maintain an existing ban on in-flight cellphone calls.
Now, a group of Republican lawmakers are hoping to make the ban permanent as part of a larger bill that would make other large-scale changes to the airline industry, including privatizing the air traffic control system, now overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Under a proposal introduced last week by Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pa., who chairs the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, air traffic control would be overseen by a non-profit corporation composed of members from airlines, airports, labor unions, business aircraft operators, and private pilots, among other groups.
Representative Shuster argues that the US is lagging behind other countries in transitioning from a radar-based system to one that uses satellite-based GPS, saying that delays in the FAA’s plans to modernize air traffic control already cost passengers and the economy $30 billion a year.
The new system, the agency says, will allow planes to fly closer together without jeopardizing safety and reduce total flight delays by 30 percent.
The lawmakers’ proposal would still rely on passengers paying taxes on plane tickets, fuel, and other fees, the Associated Press reports, but the corporation would use bonds to help pay for modernizing the system, rather than being subject to approval by Congress.
The call to reform the system, “is not an indictment of the FAA’s leadership. Nor is it a criticism of our air traffic controllers and FAA employees,” proponents said in a slickly-produced explainer packet that explains the proposal. It has been supported by many major US airlines — though with the notable exception of Delta.
“The problem is a governance and financing structure that has remained largely unchanged since the FAA was created in 1958, and is broken beyond repair. The agency is a vast government bureaucracy of 46,000 employees – not a high-tech service provider,” they added.
The FAA has argued that it is making progress, but it has faced criticism from lawmakers. Its inspector general has also found that while costs for air traffic control have doubled over the last two decades, the department’s productivity has declined.
Some of the busiest air traffic centers have too few controllers, while others have too many, the agency found. Currently, air traffic controllers are prohibited from striking in the US.
The ban on in-flight calls has been in place for years because of concerns that the phones’ electromagnetic signals could interfere with airplanes’ navigation equipment.
But as such concerns have mostly diminished — one study found 29 incidents of suspected electronic device interference involving mobile phones on flights between 2003 and 2009 — the FAA has turned enforcing the policy over to individual airlines.
Its policy, for example, includes an exemption for “any other portable electronic device that the operator of the aircraft has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used.”
In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission considered lifting the ban for flights above 10,000 feet after the FAA loosened its rules and allowed passengers to send texts and emails from their phones during flights.
Both agencies have mostly taken a hands-off approach to deciding whether all airlines should ban calls, with the FCC noting that its proposal was “a purely technical decision” based on possible safety issues.
The FCC’s rules, which haven’t yet been adopted, would have allowed airlines to install an “Airborne Access System” that would let travelers connect their devices to commercial wireless networks, similar to current Wi-Fi service available on many flights.
Representative Shuster’s plan comes amid a larger debate about the FAA’s progress on its “NextGen” modernization effort, which launched more than a decade ago in an effort to switch to a satellite-based system.
Shuster’s plan is likely to be modeled on one in Canada, which created a non-profit corporation to run its air traffic system a decade ago. But the proposal has faced opposition from Democratic lawmakers on the transportation committee in both chambers.
Though the head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Union has said he plans to withhold judgment until more details about the plan are revealed, a bipartisan group of legislators who currently oversee parts of the FAA’s budget have cautioned that the system is still untested.
“We have concerns about any proposal that would transfer all decisions on financial investments and fees — on airlines and the public — to an independent entity that is not accountable to the people we serve," wrote senior GOP and Democratic members of the House Appropriations Committee in a letter sent to their party leaders last week.
Lawmakers are set to review the proposal at a hearing Wednesday — though seeing a permanent ban on cellphone use is still likely a long ways off, for better or worse.