Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai made news this week with a short declaration about the use of cellphones on airplanes. In an official FCC statement, Pai made clear he does not support the use of cellphones for voice calls onboard flights.
“I stand with airline pilots, flight attendants, and America’s flying public against the FCC’s ill-conceived 2013 plan to allow people to make cellphone calls on planes,” said Pai, who served as an FCC commissioner since 2012 before being appointed chairman this year by President Donald Trump. “I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest.”
Pai’s statement references the December 2013 proposal by Tom Wheeler, then-FCC chairman, to allow passengers to switch on their cellphones after planes reach cruising altitude.
Wheeler’s proposal was never approved because it was a recommendation—albeit, an official one. Although at the time the FCC voted 3–2 to support the full use of cellphones while flying, the U.S. Department of Transportation must determine whether to support or oppose lifting the ban. Pai and current FCC member Michael O’Rielly cast the dissenting votes against Wheeler’s 2013 proposal.
Public outcry from passengers who declared in writing their annoyance with cellphone calls made while flying played a role in delaying implementation of Wheeler’s recommendation. In addition, numerous professional organizations opposed lifting the ban. It has been in place since 1991, when the FCC adopted initial restrictions on the use of inflight cellphones out of fear they could jam or interfere with signals from ground-based relay stations that planes rely on for navigation. Wheeler’s 2013 proposal argued that current technology made such concerns outdated.
Representatives from pilots’ and flight attendants’ associations argued that lifting the ban posed safety hazards to crews and passengers. The Association for Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), for example, opposed lifting the ban out of concern for passengers, who might be annoyed listening to phone conversations while flying. Complaints or direct confrontations with cellphone users would lead to disruptions and safety issues, the APFA argued. The association reportedly also expressed fears that terrorists could use cellphones to assist with, or launch, deadly attacks onboard flights.
It’s worth noting that some overseas-based airlines currently allow the use of cellphones at cruising altitude for text-messaging and web-search access, provided passengers disable voice service.
However, it is unlikely passengers onboard commercial domestic flights or U.S. carriers flying overseas will be able to use their cellphones to make voice calls anytime soon. FCC Chairman Pai’s statement, along with professional organizations’ opposition, seems to place him on the “safety first” side of the issue.
“Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet,” Pai said.
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