On Monday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated an order for approval by his fellow commissioners that would terminate ongoing FCC proceedings on a proposal to lift the agency’s current prohibition against the usage of wireless devices to conduct cellular voice calls in-flight.
Launched in December 2013 by a 3-2 vote, the FCC’s rulemaking proceeding on in-flight cell phone use has generated a groundswell of opposition from the traveling public and from representative associations of airline attendants and crews who have voiced concerns about the disruptive impact of cell phone conversations during flight time. At the time the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was adopted, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler emphasized that the FCC’s goal was not to mandate that airlines permit cell phone usage in-flight, but to clear FCC regulatory “underbrush” that would enable the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the airline industry to make their own decisions about allowing passengers to place cellular voice calls in-flight. Current FCC rules against in-flight cellular voice calls, however, do not extend to the use of Wi-Fi networks for such calls through services such as Skype, and the DOT launched its own rulemaking proceeding in December to determine whether such calls should be banned or if airlines should be required to disclose to passengers whether in-flight Wi-Fi voice calls are permitted.
Pai, who dissented from the 2013 NPRM alongside his Republican colleague, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, announced in a press statement that he stood “with airline pilots, flight attendants, and America’s flying public” against the proposed rule change. Declaring, “I do not believe moving forward with this plan is in the public interest,” Pai proclaimed that “taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet.”
Although officials of wireless association CTIA and the Consumer Technology Association, a supporter of the FCC’s proposal, declined comment, a spokesman for Airlines for America welcomed Pai’s action, declaring that “[a]irlines should be able to determine what services can be safely offered in flight and make those decisions based on what is in the best interests of their passengers and crew members.” Praising Pai’s move as “the right decision,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson called on the DOT to “follow the FCC’s lead and ban voice calls inflight.”