Rules against making cellphone calls during airline flights are "outdated," and it's time to change them, federal regulators said Thursday, drawing immediate howls of protest from flight attendants, airline officials, and others.
Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a statement Thursday that the commission was proposing greater in-flight access to mobile broadband. The proposal will be considered at the commission's Dec. 12 meeting.
"The time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," Wheeler said, adding that modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably.
The proposal would also allow passengers to use their smartphones to send email and download data. The proposal would apply to flights when they are over 10,000 feet in altitude, but not during takeoffs and landings.
Early reaction was skeptical. Flight attendants and others have worried that a plane full of chattering passengers could lead to arguments and undermine safety.
"Passengers overwhelmingly reject cellphone use in the aircraft cabin. The FCC should not proceed with this proposal," the Association of Flight Attendants said in a statement in response to the FCC chairman's comments.
"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," the flight attendants group said.
American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said the airline will wait to see what the FCC does. "However, our Wi-Fi at this time doesn't allow voice calls."
"Our customer feedback indicates people may not want that policy but of course tastes and desires change," JetBlue spokesman Morgan Johnston said in an email. "We would prioritize making the cabin comfortable and welcoming for all — for those who want cell service and for those who like peace and quiet."
Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Hudson Crossing, said, "There are bad ideas, and then there's this."
"Unlike the ability to use their personal electronics and Wi-Fi from gate to gate, passengers don't want this," he added. "The constant chatter of passengers on their mobile phones has the potential to further increase tension among already stressed-out passengers. It will be a catalyst for increased cases of 'air rage.'"
The Federal Aviation Administration recently lifted restrictions on the use of most personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings, but not cellphone calls, which fall under the FCC.
The FAA based its decision to ease restrictions on electronic devices on recommendations from an industry advisory group. The same advisory group also recommended that the FCC review its restrictions on phone calls.
The FCC proposal is primarily a response to the advisory group's recommendation, said an FCC spokesman, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to release the information in his own name.
The move came just 16 days after Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cellular telephone industry, took over the post of FCC chairman.
If the agency decides to move ahead with the proposal, it would be just the first step in a long rulemaking process that includes soliciting public comment.
Should the FCC lift its restrictions on cellphone use, airlines would still have the option of deciding whether to equip planes to handle calls and data downloads.
Mayerowitz reported from New York. AP Airlines reporter David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.
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