Who Will Make the Call on In-Flight Phone Calls?

The FCC recently signaled its willingness to consider allowing the use of cell phones in flight, raising the specter of yet another irritant in the already-stressful travel experience.

The prospect of planeloads of chattering yahoos triggered an outpouring of impassioned pushback on the issue, with groups including the Association of Flight Attendants calling for an outright ban on inflight cell calls.

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But ultimately, it's not the FCC's call whether U.S. carriers allow cell calls. The FCC's proposed rulemaking would give the airlines permission to support cell use, but it would be up to individual carriers to decide whether or not to do so.

Unless, that is, Congress intervenes and passes a law banning inflight cell calls altogether.

Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, this week introduced a bill to do just that. His proposed legislation, the "Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act of 2013," would prohibit cell calls during the inflight portion of all scheduled domestic flights.

According to Shuster:

Let's face it, airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined. For the most part, passengers are looking for ways to make their flights go by as quickly and quietly as possible. Pilots and flight attendants are focused on ensuring a safe and comfortable flight for everyone onboard. For passengers, being able to use their phones and tablets to get online or send text messages is a useful in-flight option. But if passengers are going to be forced to listen to the gossip in the aisle seat, it's going to make for a very long flight. For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it's just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.

In-Flight Cell Calls in Your Future?

So how is this likely to play out?

Based on the FCC's characterization of the current restrictions as "outdated" and "restricted," it seems that that organization is very much inclined to remove those restrictions.

It's more difficult to handicap the chances of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee bill. But members of Congress tend to be frequent travelers, flying regularly back and forth between Washington, D.C., and the states they represent. As Shuster's remarks suggest, they would be personally affected by unfettered cell use in flight. So I would give the legislation a better-than-even chance of passing.

If Shuster's bill does not pass, it will be up to the airlines. There would be some market pressure to support inflight calling, to stay competitive with a number of international carriers which allow cell calls. On the other hand, if their decision-making is driven by the needs and wants of their customers, the airlines would simply decline to activate inflight calling capabilities. But that's a big "if."

My bet is that inflight calling will be derailed, either by Congress or by the airlines themselves. That's my hope as well.

Reader Reality Check

What's your vote, Yea or Nay on in-flight cell calls?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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