WASHINGTON — Cellphone calls will continue to be prohibited during airline flights under an order the head of the Federal Communications Commission proposed Monday, which would end consideration of lifting the ban.
The FCC technically must vote on Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed order to keep the ban on voice calls over cellular service during flights. But two of the three current commissioners — Pai and Michael O’Rielly — voted against even collecting comment about lifting the ban in December 2013, so the termination order is likely to succeed.
“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,” Pai told USA TODAY in a statement. “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.”
The FCC adopted the ban in 1991 because of concerns that numerous cellphones on flights could jam ground-based relay stations as planes flew across the country.
But Pai's predecessor as FCC chairman, Thomas Wheeler, argued that the ban had become obsolete because many airliners basically carry their own cellphone towers for in-flight entertainment. He proposed in 2013 to lift the ban and leave the policy in the hands of the Transportation Department and the airlines.
The third current FCC commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, supported lifting the ban in December 2013 because more competition among wireless companies could lower costs for fliers. While she acknowledged heading to the “quiet car” without voice calls on trains, Clyburn said airlines could decide whether to allow voice calls or just silent cellular services such as Web browsing or texting.
The FCC received 1,425 comments that were overwhelmingly opposed to allowing voice calls, including hand-scrawled diatribes and multi-page rants. John Simpson of San Francisco called lifting the ban “the worst idea ever.” Frank Wake of Anchorage said allowing calls would be “cruel and unusual torture for those of us trapped.”
In February 2014, the Transportation Department also sought public comment about whether to allow voice calls during flights in the event the FCC dropped its ban.
At least two dozen foreign airlines allow calls, which the providers said are typically short. AeroMobile Communications has flown aboard foreign airlines since 2008 and has said only 5% of passengers on flights bound for the U.S. make calls that last an average 2 minutes.
But the U.S. department received more than 1,700 comments, with 96% favoring the ban, 2% favoring the ban with exceptions for emergencies and 2% saying airlines should set their own policies.
Flight attendants were among the most vocally opposed to lifting the ban because of concerns including passengers ignoring safety briefings, getting into fights over noise or possibly helping terrorists coordinate attacks.
"Allowing in-flight cellphone calls was such a bad idea that it brought virtually everyone in the aviation community — passengers, policymakers and flight crews, first and foremost — together in opposition," said Bob Ross, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents crews at American Airlines. "The proposal raised serious concerns about the safe operation of the aircraft, which is APFA’s top priority. It also put the comfort of our passengers in jeopardy."
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said the FCC is making the right decision. She urged the Transportation Department to ban voice calls in-flight.
"The traveling public and crew members do not want voice calls on planes," Nelson said. "It would jeopardize safety, security, increase conflict and exponentially raise the annoyance level of everyone in the cabin."
Pai’s proposed order would formally terminate the FCC rulemaking because “the record is insufficient to determine any reasonable solution that would strike an appropriate balance of competing interests.”
The FCC’s action leaves untouched the prospect for Wi-Fi calls during flights through services such as Skype. No federal regulations now govern Wi-Fi calls during flights, although most U.S. airlines prohibit all voice calls.
Airlines have argued that they— rather than government regulations — should set policies for whether calls are allowed on flights.
"Airlines should be able to determine what services can be safely offered in flight and make those decisions based on what is in the best interests of their passengers and crewmembers," said Penny Kozakos, spokeswoman for the trade group Airlines for America, which represents most of the largest carriers. "It is also important to note that we are not aware of any carriers that currently allow voice calls or plan to do so in the future."
In December 2016, the Transportation Department asked for public comment about whether to ban Wi-Fi calls or to require that airlines notify passengers if this sort of voice calls were allowed. Anthony Foxx, the former transportation secretary, said he was trying to close the floodgates before they open farther.
Another 5,500 comments flooded in, with emotional opposition to any sort of voice calls. Cathleen Freesen of Springfield, Ill., said: “It would be pure hell on a plane in that confined space to have to listen to people’s inane conversations.” Robert Laurens of Atlanta, who said he flies 160 segments per year, urged the department to “KEEP THE BAN ON PHONE CALLS IN PLACE.”