Cellphones on planes at last? FCC, citing safety research, to weigh change.

The FCC chairman announced the plan to consider allowing cellphone use, saying the initiative is in cooperation with the FAA to provide 'new mobile opportunities for consumers.'

Matt Slocum/AP/File
A passenger checks her cell phone after boarding a flight in Boston, in October.

Travelers on US domestic flights could soon be experiencing what their overseas counterparts have been for years: in flight use of cellphones.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that on Dec. 12 it will consider a proposal to allow in flight cellphone calls, overturning a 1991 ban that forbade them during and after takeoff.

Pressure from airline industry groups, including those representing pilots and flight attendants, killed a similar proposal in 2004 on safety grounds, but this time the FCC, under the direction of new chairman Tom Wheeler, says new research shows that wireless communication from an airplane does not interfere with its operations.

“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” Wheeler said in a statement released Thursday. He added that the effort, in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is designed to provide “new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

Just three weeks ago, on Oct. 31, the FAA announced that after months of expert review, domestic air travelers would be permitted to use hand-held electronic devices such as tablets and laptops during “all phases of flight,” but that the use of cellphones to make calls would still be banned between departure and arrival gates. 

If approved, the new rules on cellphones would move aviation standards closer to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. There, air travelers have been using mobile technology on flights since 2008; an on-flight cellular network transmits wireless signals to a base station that then create links with commercial communications satellites.

Because the signals rely on satellites and do not shoot the signals directly to ground networks owned and operated by wireless carriers, only low-power transmissions are involved, which is considered much safer. Reliance on satellite networks is more costly, however, and providers charge their users at international roaming rates.

Wireless firms and technology companies are pushing for the overturn of the 1991 ban.

Julie Kearney, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association, said in a statement she was “pleased” with the potential new rule and said that there needed to be a “critical balance between ensuring airline travel safety and allowing airline passengers to use their devices to stay connected, informed and entertained while on board.”

“Of course, any liberalization of the use of wireless devices on airplanes should not negate general common courtesies. Engaging in phone conversations in flight may prove technically feasible but many may find it socially undesirable,” Ms. Kearney added.

There is already limited phone use on some US flights through pay-as-you-go phones installed in seatbacks, however high costs have prevented them from being embraced by the public. Airlines also block the use of computer platforms like Skype, saying that they worry their use uses too much bandwidth and could interfere with cockpit communications.

Airlines and union organizations continue to oppose the proposed legislation, saying that cellphone use will create unintended disturbances, and could even lead to “air rage” incidents that already exist on public transportation like trains. They also say that cellphones will create distractions that will prevent some passengers from hearing important emergency information and alerts.

According to a statement released Thursday by the Association of Flight Attendants, their workers, “as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment.  Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe…. In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating negative effects on aviation safety and security that are great and far too risky.”

Those concerns are not resonating in Europe. In addition to enjoying a more liberal cellphone regulation, the European Commission passed legislation early this month that allows air travelers to send and receive e-mail, and browse the Internet, via high-speed mobile devices on 3G and 4G networks. US air travelers are only allowed to use pay-as-you-go inboard Wifi.

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