WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler isn't backing down on letting U.S. airline passengers make phone calls even as members of Congress and members of the public say, "No."
The agency Thursday is set to take a preliminary vote on ending its voice-calling ban after commissioners return from a House hearing whose leader said he'll make Wheeler's move a "spirited topic of discussion."
The chairman of a House committee overseeing aviation introduced legislation Dec. 9 to prohibit passengers from making voice calls.
Wheeler isn't budging.
"There's a lot of noise around this issue right now and people clearly do care about it," said Paul Gallant, Washington-based managing director for Guggenheim Securities, said in an interview. "But this is totally an airline call, and a year from now people will forget the FCC ever had a role in this."
Eliminating the FCC's restriction is among the first policy proposals from Wheeler, a Democrat who took office last month. The FCC vote Thursday would open a period for public comment; a second vote would be needed to end the ban.
"I don't want the guy sitting next to me on the flight to the coast yapping on his phone the whole time any more than you do," Wheeler said during a Dec. 2 interview that was webcast live by the FCC. "But I think that that's an issue that the airlines should take up. You shouldn't be hiding behind an outdated, unnecessary technological rule."
Justin Cole, an FCC spokesman, Tuesday declined to comment.
U.S. passengers over the past several years have been consistent in opposing in-flight calls, which are allowed elsewhere in the world.
When the Federal Aviation Administration last year posed the question in a Federal Register filing, 69 percent of commenters said no to voice communications, according to a report by an agency advisory group. Delta Air Lines told the FAA last year that 64 percent of passengers it surveyed were opposed.
At the White House, an online petition opposing cellular calls in flight had drawn 4,388 signatures through Tuesday -- or more than 95,000 short of the number needed by Dec. 21 to prompt a response from President Barack Obama's administration.
"I think they're taking a professional look at it, which is good," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who as chairman of the Commerce Committee oversees the FCC and aviation, said about the agency in an interview Tuesday.
U.S. aviation authorities announced Oct. 31 they would lift restrictions on using electronic devices including Kindles from Amazon.com and iPads from Apple to read, browse the Web and send email over Wi-Fi connections in airplane mode.
Voice calls are another matter. The FAA policy change doesn't apply to them. Delta, United Continental Holdings Inc. and US Airways Group Inc., one of the carriers that merged this week to form the new American Airlines Group Inc., have told Gogo Inc., the largest provider of in-flight Wi-Fi service, to block voice calls over the Internet to avoid annoying passengers.
In recommending that the FAA consult with the FCC on whether the ban is still needed from a technical standpoint, its advisory group said it was concerned airline crews may become distracted from their duties by "incidents involving interpersonal friction between two or more passengers."
If the FCC rule changes, use of mobile wireless services will still be prohibited unless there's a connection through specialized onboard equipment, Julius Knapp, the FCC's chief engineer, said in a Dec. 5 blog post.
"It is the airlines that have the ultimate say," Roger Sherman, acting chief of the FCC's wireless bureau, wrote in a Nov. 22 blog post.
The post drew 40 online comments, most of them negative, including "this is a really bad idea," and "I say no emphatically."
Passengers need protection from boorish seatmates, according to U.S. lawmakers offering legislation to prevent airborne bedlam.
"Airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, said Dec. 9 in a news release announcing his bill, introduced the same day, to prohibit passenger use of mobile devices for voice calls.
"Imagine two million passengers, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts," Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who said he's planning legislation, said in a Nov. 26 news release. "The Transportation Security Administration would have to hire three times as many air marshals to deal with the fistfights."
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., asked colleagues to sign a letter saying the FCC should "not open the door to wireless voice services being used by passengers," according to a text provided by DeFazio's office.
The Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, a unit that represents 32 unions including those for airline pilots and flight attendants, has asked lawmakers to sign the letter.
Passengers engrossed in calls would miss safety announcements and terrorists could use phones for coordination, the department's president, Edward Wytkind, said in a Dec. 6 letter distributed by email.
The FCC previously considered allowing airborne mobile- phone use and abandoned the effort in 2007, saying it didn't have enough technical information to lift the restriction in force since the 1990s.
Carriers will work with the FCC and FAA to "ensure that we can safely provide the type of connectivity our customers want, along with the quality and comfort they expect when they fly," Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group, said in an email Tuesday.