FCC Walks Back Plan To Allow In Flight Cell Service

America’s Federal Communication Commission has ended proceedings that looked at allowing passengers to make in-flight cell phone calls on domestic United States flights. The FCC says it is unable to find a balance between competing interests, including safety.

The FCC has ended proceedings about allowing mobile phone use in-flight. Photo: Chicago O’Hare Airport

The FCC is a US Government agency that regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. The FCC is the United States’ primary authority for communications law and regulation.

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The FCC found they couldn’t balance the interests

While most modern aircraft have the bandwidth to allow voice over the internet phone calls, on domestic flights in the United States, cell phones have stayed switched off. Key reasons why include antipathy from flight attendants, public perception, safety concerns, and domestic law.

These FCC proceedings, which date back to 2013, looked at whether cell phone calls would have been permitted where an aircraft is equipped with a specialized picocell or other platforms designed to minimize the risk of interference to terrestrial wireless networks. Cell phone use would have been limited to altitudes above 10,000 feet.

But on November 24, the FCC permanently ended proceedings. In its order terminating the proceedings, the FCC said,

“The record is insufficient to determine any reasonable solution that would strike an appropriate balance of competing interests.  There is strong opposition to the Commission’s proposals from many commenters in this proceeding, including our nation’s airline pilots and flight attendants.

“A number of commenters argue that the results of international studies and operations may not adequately reflect whether onboard mobile operations can be safely permitted in the United States.

“The record is insufficient to determine any reasonable solution that would strike an appropriate balance of competing interests.”

Some international carriers allow in-flight mobile phone calls. Photo: Chicago O’Hare Airport

Many submissions against the idea of in-flight cell phone calls

The FCC proceeding received over 1,400 submissions, ranging from members of the public to lobby groups and airline industry groups. Many members of the public loathed the idea of allowing cell phone use in-flight.

“I am profoundly opposed to any rule changes allowing the use of mobile phones for telephone conversations aboard aircraft in flight,” said Charles W. West in his submission.

“Flying commercially is already a sufficiently miserable experience without being forced to listen to other passengers’ conversations.”

The Air Line Pilots Association also opposed the idea, citing both the safety and security of flights as a concern.

“The use of cell phones by passengers may have a negative operational safety impact on the ability of flight attendants to perform their required duties.

“Inflight use of mobile broadband technology could be exploited by terrorists to harm aviation security, negating any of the technology’s benefits to law enforcement.”

The Association of Flight Attendants opposes the use of in-flight mobile phones. Photo: Southwest AIrlines

Flight Attendants Association vocal in its opposition

Sara Nelson is President of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). She has been vocal in her opposition to cell phone use in aircraft cabins. She highlighted the FCC proceedings when testifying before the United States House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Hearing of the Subcommittee on Aviation in 2017.

“One of our gravest concerns is the potential increased risks to safety and security due to voice call-related operational vulnerabilities. In-flight voice calling will allow unauthorized persons to communicate by voice off the airplane or within the airplane.

“Safety and security must be considered and addressed comprehensively before consideration is given to permitting the use of voice call services by passengers on commercial transport airplanes.”

Last week’s decision by the FCC to end proceedings will keep cell phones quiet on planes across the United States for the immediate future. But long term, who knows?

Simple Flying has approached both the ALPA and AFA regarding the FCC’s decision to terminate proceedings. We haven’t heard back before publication.

Are you a fan of cell phones on planes? Post a comment and let us know.