Government weighs phone calls on planes

Airlines, agencies argue passengers don't want change

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WASHINGTON — Rules against making cellphone calls on flights are outdated, and it's time to change them, federal regulators said Thursday, drawing immediate howls of protest from flight attendants, airline officials and others.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 FCC'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"The time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," Wheeler said, adding that modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably.

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."

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," she said.

"Our customer feedback indicates people may not want that policy, but … 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."

"Unlike the ability to use their personal electronics and Wi-Fi from gate to gate, passengers don't want this," Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Hudson Crossing, said. "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 on takeoffs and landings, but not cellphone calls, which fall under the FCC.