As technology blossomed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, more and more people owned cell phones. Instead of being connected to a phone cord, you could talk on your phone almost everywhere – at a restaurant, while walking in a park, anywhere!
Well, almost anywhere. Talking on the phone while on a plane wasn’t possible.
At first, it was because the technology simply wasn’t there – the signal that allowed you to talk on your phone on land simply wasn’t available at 35,000 feet. Government regulators were also concerned in those early days about interference with wireless networks on the ground. So except for those phones that used to be on your seat back and charged you per minute (remember those?), they had banned phone calls on planes since 1991.
But as technology continued to improve, having a conversation with Grandma while hurtling through the air in a tin can, with a few hundred of your newest friends nearby, could be a physical reality, if a plane used/offered specific equipment.
But it still wasn’t allowed.
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. It’s also the United States’ primary authority for communications law and regulation. With improved technology, they started proceedings in 2013 to re-examine if phone calls on flights should be allowed. Some highlights since then:
In 2013, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said there were “no technical reasons to prohibit such technology to operate” that would allow in-flight calls, since it appeared to work well in other countries (several other countries have allowed cell phone use since as far back as 2010). He proposed leaving the decision up to individual airlines.
In 2016, the DOT suggested that airlines and ticket agents would have to, “disclose in advance to consumers if the carrier operating their flight allows passengers to make voice calls using mobile wireless devices,” believing that allowing voice calls, without providing adequate notice, would be an unfair and deceptive practice. But they didn’t think phone calls on planes would be a bad thing and suggested allowing individual airlines to decide for themselves.
In 2017, current (but soon to be former) FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he stood “with airline pilots, flight attendants and America’s flying public against the FCC’s ill-conceived 2013 plan to allow people to make cellphone calls on planes. Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans.”
Phone companies and/or WiFi networks would love for us to make phone calls on planes. For a price, of course. Many others were against it, though, and made the FCC aware of the same in over 1,400 submissions from members of the public, lobby groups and airline industry groups. Some of the responses included:
- “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.” (Air Line Pilots Association)
- “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.” (Association of Flight Attendants)
- “I am profoundly opposed to any rule changes allowing the use of mobile phones for telephone conversations aboard aircraft in flight. Flying commercially is already a sufficiently miserable experience without being forced to listen to other passengers’ conversations.” (Charles W. West, passenger)
Finally, seven years after their proceedings began, the FCC has rejected the proposal to lift the ban on in-flight cellphone calls on the US. airlines.
The “record is insufficient to determine any reasonable solution that would strike an appropriate balance of competing interests,” the FCC said in closing the proceeding.
Feature Photo: Pikrepo
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary