FCC May Lift Cell Phone Ban Landing Airplane Etiquette in the Hot Seat

FCC May Lift Ban on In-Flight Cell Phone Use


The FCC will once again consider doing away with the ban on in-flight cell phone use sparking debate on the social chagrins this move would surely bring.  

The FCC is proposing that passengers be allowed to use their cell phones once the aircraft has reached an altitude of 10,000 feet. The restriction on cell phone use during take-off and landing would still remain in place. While the FCC may lift the in-flight cellular ban, the decision to allow and provide in-flight phone service would ultimately lie with the airlines.

In 1991, the FCC first implemented the ban on cell phone use citing safety concerns. At the time, there was fear that cell phones could potentially interfere with wireless networks on the ground. However, those concerns have since evaporated as the FAA has stated that cell phone use is no longer considered a threat to aircrafts.

This is not the first time the FCC has made such a proposal. Way back in 2004, it considered allowing cell phone use in-flight. Consequently, the FCC found itself inundated in over 8000 complaints – largely from flight attendants deeming in-flight calls a nuisance. The negative backlash combined with a “lack of technical information” caused the FCC to shy away from lifting the ban thus killing the proposal in 2007.

Now, once again, the FCC will attempt to resurrect the motion according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” states Mr. Wheeler. “I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”


So how are American flyers reacting to this news? The largest union for flight attendants in the US, the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA, has stated its opposition to lifting the ban.

“There are far too many scenarios where in-flight cellphone use would have very negative effects on safety and security,” warned union spokeswoman Corey Caldwell. “We don’t want attendants having to vie for passengers’ attention during emergency situations.”

Some complained on twitter, like Randi Zuckerberg of “Dot Complicated” fame, “Airplanes were the last socially acceptable place to unplug.” Others reacted with a simple, “Noooooooo!”

Calling it a nightmare, Los Angeles-based screenwriter Greg Pritikin laments, “I don’t want to have to sit next to someone who is talking on their phone the entire flight.”

However, a poll cited by the FAA surveying 1600 adults revealed a 51 – 47 divide on the issue where 51% responded negatively to in-flight calls while 47% gave a positive response.

Technically, airlines already have the ability to offer voice calls, via Google Voice and Skype, to customers using smart phones with the wi-fi networks already in place aboard aircraft. However, the airlines maintain the ban on internet calls saying that their customers are not interested in voice calls in-flight.

Gogo Inc., the US’s largest in-flight internet provider, further affirms what the airlines are saying about their customers. While Gogo’s non-US customers largely use their app to make in-flight calls, their US commercial-airline customers have asked for Gogo’s voice-call function to be disabled.

Apparently, at least some American fliers are already aware of  the social etiquettes that surround cell phone use – as Steve Nolan of Gogo Inc. explains  his customers’ reluctance to in-flight calls, “It’s the social stigma of people having loud public conversations in a public space.” In any case, the FCC will begin discussions on the ban-lifting proposal this December in what could be a months-long process of deliberation.

By Fatema Biviji


The Wall Street Journal

The New York Times