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FCC Set to Ban Inflight Calls for Good

If current practice is any indication, cellphone calls aboard U.S. flights might as well be banned. Technically, that’s not currently the case. But it might be soon.

The debate over inflight phone-calling raged hot and heavy two years ago, with the opposing forces seemingly gaining the upper hand. The Association of Flight Attendants called for an outright ban on the calls. A no-call bill was introduced in Congress. The DOT signaled its general opposition to inflight cell use on safety grounds, in particular that it would distract passengers from attending to routine safety announcements and flight crew instructions in emergency situations. And several airline CEOs pledged it would never happen on their planes.

While the DOT never formalized its inflight call policy, the FCC did:

Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off.

Although that might seem to put an end to the matter, it doesn’t. Whether intentionally or not, the FCC rule allows for the possibility of making calls via WiFi, as is easily done using popular phone apps such as FaceTime, WeChat, and the like. And WiFi calls are no different from cellular calls in terms of their effects. They’re annoying, disruptive, and, as has been argued by many airline workers, they can create an unsafe condition in flight.

But the FCC’s objection to inflight calls wasn’t based on concerns about travelers’ safety or comfort. Rather, the ban was imposed to preempt the possibility that cell calls might interfere with a plane’s communications and navigation systems. Because those concerns had been mooted by advances in technology, in 2013 the FCC began to consider revoking the ban, a move that would effectively leave to the DOT the final decision whether or not to allow cell calls inflight.

Last week, however, the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, circulated a proposed order that would reclaim for the Commission a leading role in definitively blocking inflight calls. In a major departure from his predecessor’s single-minded focus on technical issues, Pai cited cell calls’ potential to undermine travelers’ safety and to annoy other passengers, and proposed shelving the 2013 plan.

Here’s Pai’s statement in support of the proposed order:

I stand with airline pilots, flight attendants, and America’s flying public against the FCC’s ill-conceived 2013 plan to allow people to make cellphone calls on planes. I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest. 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.

Assuming the Commission votes to approve Pai’s order, as seems likely, the question of inflight calls, whether using cellular or WiFi technology, will be put to rest, finally.

Reader Reality Check

Inflight calls: Yea or nay?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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