FCC To Reconsider Aircraft Cellphone Ban

Airlines are starting to relax their policies on use of electronic devices, but use of cellphones is still prohibited. That might change, says the FCC.

Eric Zeman, Contributor

November 22, 2013

4 Min Read

The Federal Communications Commission said that it will reconsider a years-old ban on the use of cellphones from airplanes. If the FCC changes its policy, it may be possible to make phone calls and send text messages from properly equipped airplanes. Don't expect this change to happen overnight, as it is sure to meet with resistance.

The FCC's announcement follows one from the Federal Aviation Administration in recent weeks regarding the use of electronics on planes. The FAA now believes it is safe for passengers to use electronic devices during all phases of flight. Before the FAA changed its stance, electronic devices could be used only after airplanes had ascended to 10,000 feet. Several airlines, including Delta and Virgin America, have already changed their own policies to match the FAA's recommendation. The FAA's decision does not, however, apply to the use of cellphones for making calls or sending messages when airborne. That falls under the FCC's purview and is still forbidden.

{image 2}

One reason passengers can't make calls from the air involves the way that signals affect the ground-based networks. That's why the FCC is looking at installing new systems on planes in order to protect the ground-based wireless networks while also allowing passengers to make and receive calls. The system will, in effect, add cell "towers" to airplanes. Passengers' phones will connect to the plane-based tower, which will then communicate to the ground-based networks using a special link. Passengers won't be allowed to use their phones to make calls on planes that don't have this equipment installed. While the technical details have yet to be fully worked out, the FCC plans to move forward with its policy making.

"We circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband. Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a statement. "I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

[ For more on the proposed FCC policy change, see FAA Advisers: Lift Device Bans On Planes. ]

Not everyone is on board, however. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) issued a statement shortly after the FCC made its plans known: "Passengers overwhelmingly reject cell phone use in the aircraft cabin. The FCC should not proceed with this proposal. AFA opposes any changes that would allow in-flight voice calls.

"Flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment. Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe."

Flight attendants already have a tough job. Policing talk-happy passengers could make their job harder.

"Many polls and surveys conducted over the years find that a vast majority of the traveling public wants to keep the ban on voice calls in the aircraft cabin," continued the AFA. "In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating negative effects on aviation safety and security that are great and far too risky. Besides potential passenger conflicts, flight attendants also are concerned that in emergencies, cell phone use would drown out announcements and distract from life-saving instructions from the crew."

The sad truth is that we cannot rely on people to be polite and reasonable all the time. While many travelers perhaps relish the idea of being able to remain connected when in the air, others might want to keep airplanes quiet places free of gabbing passengers who share too much personal information too loudly.

Now that the idea of making phone calls from airplanes could become a widespread reality, what do you think? Good idea, bad idea, or simply unavoidable progress?

Consumerization 1.0 was "we don't need IT." Today, we need IT to bridge the gap between consumer and business tech. Also in the Consumerization 2.0 issue of InformationWeek: Stop worrying about the role of the CIO. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Eric Zeman


Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights