FCC Mulls Lifting Ban On In-Flight Phones But DOT May Stop You From Gabbing Away On Planes

Yesterday, the FCC began the onerous process of considering whether to revise the decades-old rules regarding the use of wireless phones in flight. If the Commission eventually changes those rules, the relative quiet of the airplane cabin could eventually be filled with the dulcet tones of one-sided conversations like “I know! Seriously!” and “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” Since this seems like a disastrous idea to some people, the Dept. of Transportation is going to consider whether it should allow calls to take place at all.

See, the current ban on using cellphones in flight is an FCC regulation, put in place more than 20 years ago out of concern about possible interference with wireless networks on the ground. The FCC’s new investigation will determine whether or not advances in technology now allow for cellphone chatter without these interference worries. It’s strictly a technological inquiry: Can it be done?

But the Dept. of Transportation still has the right to issue its own ban on in-flight cellphone use if it determines that such behavior is a safety risk. And yesterday, Transportation Secretary Anthony “Redd” Foxx said his people will be considering it.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight – and I am concerned about this possibility as well,” said Foxx in a statement.

The concerns are greater than just having to hear someone in the row behind you prattle on about all the souvenirs they bought while visiting Albany. Some flight attendants and pilots worry that passengers may be distracted and miss important announcements, or that their chatter might distract others from hearing these announcements.

There is also the fact that the mood on a plane can already get pretty tense, with stressed-out travelers and cabin crew occasionally lashing out at each other. Having to deal with some loud-talker who JUST WON’T SHUT UP WHY DON’T YOU isn’t going to make things any more calm.

For the airlines, there is also the negative publicity issue that already plagues planes that are grounded for too long — people calling to complain. We can imagine that some passengers will — justifiably or not — take advantage of the ability to make in-flight calls to file real-time complaints with airline customer service.

In some ways, this is very good as it removes some of the passenger-said/employee-said from disputes, but it may also lead to an increase in petty complaints about lukewarm coffee and boring in-flight movies.

“As the FCC has said before, their sole role on this issue is to examine the technical feasibility of the use of mobile devices in flight. We believe USDOT’s role, as part of our Aviation Consumer Protection Authority, is to determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers.”

Foxx says DOT will now begin looking into whether or not to ban in-flight calls, which means it’s time for all sorts of hearings and public comment periods and other fun regulatory rigamarole.