Mobile

Call your mother, up in the air: U.S. to consider lifting in-flight cell phone ban

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“Oh my god, how cute is Dennis, right?” squawks the woman three feet from your ear for the fourth consecutive hour as you sit, captive, constructing a sound obfuscation chamber out of airplane pillows and blankets.

This is a feasible future.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will consider allowing travelers to make calls and use their data plans while on a plane, agency officials said Thursday. The proposed rule change would allow phone use above 10,000 feet, though restrictions would still be in place during takeoff and landing.

The agency plans to introduce the item at its December open meeting, after which it will solicit public feedback on the proposal.

“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

The FCC’s announcement comes just weeks after the FAA eased restrictions on in-flight electronic use, clearing your iPad and other devices for takeoff after determining that they won’t interfere with airplane equipment. In both cases, the decision would ultimately fall on the airlines to determine their own policies.

Should airlines choose to allow cell phone use mid-flight, they’d need to equip their planes with special antennas approved by the FAA before passengers could start chatting. In a 2012 study, the FAA  asserted that cell phones don’t pose a safety threat on aircraft with on-board cellular base stations.

The FCC has prohibited in-flight cell phone calls since 1991 due to concerns that they could interfere with wireless networks on the ground. The agency proposed a similar relaxation on cell phone use in 2004 but abandoned the effort three years later after flight attendants and other groups argued that in-flight calls would be obnoxious.

Thankfully, many airlines seem to agree: Delta, Southwest, and Virgin America stated Thursday that they’re unlikely to change their policies on in-flight calls even if the FCC lifts the ban.

Let’s hope the others follow their example.