Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler told members of Congress that while his agency sees no technical reason to ban calls on planes, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told him Thursday morning that the DOT will be moving forward with its own restrictions.
Wheeler called his proposal to rescind the ban "the responsible thing to do." Calls have been prohibited for 22 years over fears that they would interfere with cellular networks on the ground. Technological advances had resolved those concerns.
"When the rationale for a rule doesn't exist, the rule shouldn't exist," Wheeler told members of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee during his 39th day in office.
Wheeler said he's called the CEOs of major airlines, telling them that the government isn't requiring them to allow calls. Ultimately, the decision will rest with individual airlines.
"I understand the consternation caused by the thought of your onboard seatmate disturbing the flight making phone calls. I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," Wheeler said. "But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission."
The DOT, which includes the Federal Aviation Administration, wasn't immediately available for comment.
The FCC proposal comes just weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on using personal electronic devices such as iPads and Kindles below 10,000 feet, saying they don't interfere with cockpit instruments.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that 48 percent of Americans oppose allowing cellphones to be used for voice calls while flying; just 19 percent support it. Another 30 percent are neutral.
Among those who fly, opposition is stronger. Looking just at Americans who have taken more than one flight in the past year, 59 percent are against allowing calls on planes. That number grows to 78 percent among those who've taken four or more flights.
Delta Air Lines is the only airline to explicitly state that it won't allow voice calls. Delta says years of feedback from customers show "the overwhelming sentiment" is to keep the ban in place. American Airlines, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways all plan to study the issue and listen to feedback from passengers and crew.
Most Middle East airlines and a few in Asia and Europe already allow voice calls on planes. Southwest Airlines on Wednesday started allowing passengers to use iPhones to send and receive text messages while on board for $2 a day.
The nation's largest flight attendant union opposes a change, saying cellphone use could lead to fights between passengers.
The Telecommunications Industry Association, the cell phone providers' trade and lobbying group, is in support of the change. The association notes that in other countries that allow phone use, calls typically last one to two minutes and only a handful of people are using their phones at the same time. Additionally, many of the calls involve checking voicemail, with no speaking by the passenger.