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At its meeting Dec. 12, the FCC will consider changing its rules to allow passengers access to mobile wireless services. The 1991 ban began because of concerns about jamming ground stations.
"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. "I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."
The FCC will collect public comment if the proposal moves forward, but opposition erupted immediately.
"My answer is quite simple: Absolutely no way. Never," said Diane Johnson of Fort Worth, a publications executive. "With all the stress of travel, silence on a plane is like music to my ears."
The FCC proposal would give airlines the option to allow voice calls, according to two FCC sources who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Phones are used widely on airlines in other countries, for calls and data, by linking essentially to a communication tower aboard the plane. This would satisfy FCC concerns about interference with ground stations, according to the two agency sources.
"On the technical side of things, there have been changes that do allow wireless services on planes that prevent interference with ground service," one source said. "We think there is some benefit to giving airlines the choice of improving consumer choice and access, and let them to decide whether or not they're going to allow voice."
A spokeswoman for the airline industry said it hasn't seen the proposal and declined comment. "We will want to analyze any proposal to understand the impact," said Victoria Day of the group Airlines for America.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA strongly opposed the move. The group warned that calls would be disruptive, loud and divisive and possibly go beyond a mere nuisance to hurt safety by drowning out announcements.
The FCC considered relaxing its ban in 2004 but decided against a change after a flood of opposition and because of lingering technical questions.
"Passengers overwhelmingly reject cellphone use in the aircraft cabin," the attendants union said. "The FCC should not proceed with this proposal."
Capt. Patrick Smith, a 20-year pilot who writes the blog askthepilot.com, said cell calls wouldn't be allowed if safety issues remained, so it's just a social question.
"Just imagine 250 passengers all making calls at once," Smith said. "I shudder to imagine how awful that would be."
Passengers, including frequent business travelers, have long opposed allowing calls because of the noise from other calls.
"I am very much opposed to allowing voice calls aboard flights," said Bill Clegg, a hotel executive in Huntersville, N.C. "The cacophony of babies crying, children screaming and adults carrying on conversations does not need the addition of business travelers closing deals or leisure travelers yakking about travel plans, romances or what they had for dinner last night."
Some travelers shrugged off the problem.
Kim Hunter of Los Angeles, head of a marketing company who travels more than 150,000 miles per year, said calls are fine so long as "there is no disruption on both the flight deck and the cabin."
If that's the case, "I support allowing voice calls aboard all flights, both domestic and international," Hunter said.
James Morrow, an information technology consultant from Overland Park, Kan., said opponents may be overreacting because he thinks the airlines will charge dearly for the calls.
"While it might be annoying to be sitting next to someone who is on the phone, I think people are overestimating how frequently this will actually be used," Morrow said. "The airlines will charge dearly for the privilege, and sound quality of the call will almost certainly suffer if only due to the background noise of an airplane."
The reconsideration of voice calls followed the Federal Aviation Administration recent move to allow passengers to use their gadgets such as games and e-readers while taking off and landing. The FAA has prohibited the use of electronics when the plane was less than 10,000 feet in the air.
The Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents manufacturers and suppliers of communication equipment, praised the FCC for considering the change.
"TIA supports initiatives to make mobile broadband services, including Internet access, available to passengers and flight crews aboard commercial airliners and private aircraft," TIA President Grant Seiffert said. "We look forward to examining the specific proposals of the commission in this matter."