Thursday 21 September 2017

Bid to allow in-flight mobile calls

The US government is considering whether to allow mobile phones to be used on planes. (AP/Matt Slocum)
The US government is considering whether to allow mobile phones to be used on planes. (AP/Matt Slocum)

The ban on mobile phone calls during flights are "outdated" and it is time to change them, US government regulators have said.

Tom Wheeler, new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said the body was proposing greater in-flight access to mobile broadband and the plan would be considered at its December 12 meeting.

"The time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," Mr Wheeler said, adding that modern technology could deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably.

But the announcement sparked an outcry from flight attendants, airline officials and others in the industry.

The proposal would also allow passengers to use their smartphones to send email, text and download data. It would apply when flights were over 10,000 feet, but not during take-offs and landings.

The move came 16 days after Mr Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the mobile phone industry, took over the post of FCC chairman. The proposal was greeted enthusiastically by the Telecommunications Industry Association.

The association "supports initiatives to make mobile broadband services, including internet access, available to passengers and flight crews aboard commercial airliners and private aircraft", Grant Seiffert, president of the trade group, said.

"Already, substantial (information and communications technology) manufacturer and vendor interest exists in this space, and our members are investing in related opportunities for growth internationally."

But early reaction from the airline industry and unions was sceptical. Flight attendants and others fear 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 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."

"Our customer feedback indicates people may not want that policy, but of course tastes and desires change," JetBlue spokesman Morgan Johnston said. "We would prioritise making the cabin comfortable and welcoming for all - for those who want cell service and for those who like peace and quiet."

Henry 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.

"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'."

Airline pilot and blogger Patrick Smith said permitting phone calls on planes "introduces yet another stress factor into an already stressful environment".

"Airports already are such loud places," he said. "It's the airplane itself, ironically, that is often the most quiet and peaceful part of the air travel experience. Is that about to change?"

Should the FCC lift its restrictions on mobile phone use, airlines would still have the option of deciding whether to equip planes with picocells - small, satellite base stations - to handle calls. American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said the airline would wait to see what the FCC did, but added: "However, our wi-fi at this time doesn't allow voice calls."

In October, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted restrictions on the use of most personal electronic devices during take-off and landing, but not mobile calls, which fall under the FCC.

The FAA based its decision to ease restrictions on electronic devices on recommendations from an industry advisory group, which said use of tablets, music players and other devices did not cause dangerous electronic interference with navigation systems on modern airliners. Passengers are supposed to put the devices on "airplane mode". 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.

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. Also, the FAA, which regulates equipment airlines add to their planes, would probably have a say on whether planes should be retrofitted with picocells, the spokesman said.

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