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Originally published February 21, 2014 at 5:34 PM | Page modified February 21, 2014 at 11:11 PM

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Cellphone calls on planes? Feds are at odds over it

The federal Department of Transportation said it believes allowing airline passengers to make cellphone calls “may be harmful or injurious” to other passengers.


The Associated Press

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a lot of fights would break out if people were allowed to yak on their phones during... MORE
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WASHINGTON — It looks like the government is more conflicted about cellphones on planes than most travelers. As one federal agency considers allowing the calls, another wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Most passengers — particularly those who fly often — oppose allowing calls in flight, polls show. In line with that sentiment, the Transportation Department signaled in a notice posted online Friday that it is considering retaining the 23-year ban on the calls and asked for public comments. The notice comes two months after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to pursue lifting the ban.

The Transportation Department regulates aviation-consumer issues. The FCC has responsibility over whether the use of cellphones in flight would interfere with cellular networks on the ground.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants to repeal the current ban, calling it restrictive and outdated. He also wants airlines, not the government, to have final say on in-flight calling. He declined to comment Friday on the department’s notice.

Echoing some travelers’ concerns, the Transportation Department said it believes allowing passengers to make cellphone calls “may be harmful or injurious” to other passengers.

This is because “People tend to talk louder on cellphones than when they’re having face-to-face conversations,” the department said. “They are also likely to talk more and further increase the noise on a flight, as passengers would not be simply talking to the persons sitting next to them but can call whomever they like.”

Some planes already have seat-back phones in place, but they are rarely used, it said.

In an Associated Press-GfK poll three months ago, 48 percent of those surveyed opposed letting cellphones be used for voice calls while planes are in flight, while 19 percent were in favor and 30 percent were neutral. Among those who had flown four or more times in the previous year, the rate of opposition soared to 78 percent.

The FCC has received more than 1,200 public comments on its proposal, almost all opposed to lifting the ban. “Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to be the involuntary audience of another passenger’s telephone conversation,” one commenter said Friday.

Among the most ardent opponents of lifting the current ban are flight attendants, who worry that phone conversation will spark arguments between passengers and even acts of violence.

Congress, inhabited by some of the nation’s most frequent fliers, is also getting into the act. Lawmakers are pushing legislation to require transportation regulators to implement a ban on calls.

“When it comes to cellphones on planes, tap don’t talk,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said last week as the committee gave bipartisan approval to his bill.

The current FCC ban was adopted in 1991 based on concern the calls planes might interfere with cellular networks on the ground, but technological advances have resolved those worries. In 2005, the FCC cleared the way for airlines to begin offering Wi-Fi in flight.

Last October, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates safety, dropped its ban on the use of personal-electronic devices such as tablets, music players and smartphones to send email, to text or to surf the Internet during takeoffs and landings.



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