FCC Chairman Hopes to Nix Idea of Allowing In-Flight Cell Phone Use

Ajit Pai
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is recommending that the agency abandon a proposal that could have cleared the way for passengers to use their cell phones while planes are in flight.

The proposal from 2013 would have left it up to the airlines to decide whether to permit the use of data, text, and voice services while planes are in the air, as long as they complied with FAA rules. But it triggered a backlash from flight attendants and pilots, who argued that cell phone use during flights would create a disruption.

“I stand 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,” Pai said. “I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest. 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.”

At the time the proposal was introduced, the FCC said that it was technical in nature, as it would be left up to each airline to make the decision.

“The proposal provides the means for the airlines to decide whether to provide capability to access mobile wireless services and whether to limit such service to data and not voice calls,” the FCC said that year. “The Commission’s effort is purely technology-based, and by default, unless an airline takes affirmative steps, the use of cell phones would continue to be prohibited.”

The rationale for changing the rules was that technology could be installed on planes to prevent interference, something that has been done on airlines in other countries. But according to the FAA, the FCC’s rules do not cover the use of Wi-Fi, available on many flights, to make voice calls. The FAA in December began taking comments from the public on a proposal that would require that an airline disclose whether such voice calls are allowed, or whether there should be a blanket ban on voice calls on flights in and out of the United States.