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In-flight calls not clear-cut

FCC moves to lift ban, but DOT may create its own

– Just because it’s safe to use cellphones on a plane doesn’t mean that passengers should call just to say hello.

That argument played out across Washington on Thursday as one government agency moved a step closer to removing its prohibition of in-flight calls while another considered a new ban of its own.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to start a months-long public comment process to remove its restriction.

“There is a need to recognize that there is a new technology,” FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler said. “It is a rule about technology. It is not a rule of usage.”

But the Department of Transportation, which oversees aviation, isn’t so sure that permitting calls “is fair to consumers” and will consider creating its own ban as part of its consumer protection role.

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight – and I am concerned about this possibility as well,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

Calls during flights have been prohibited for 22 years over fears that they would interfere with cellular networks on the ground. Technological advances have resolved those concerns, which is one reason Wheeler wants to repeal the rule. He also wants the airlines, not the government, to have final say on in-flight calling.

But even Wheeler acknowledged the potential annoyance factor.

“I’m the last person in the world who wants to listen to somebody talking” while flying across the country, Wheeler told a House subcommittee Thursday morning.

The FCC proposal comes just weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on using personal electronic devices below 10,000 feet, saying they don’t interfere with cockpit instruments.

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that 48 percent of Americans oppose allowing cellphones to be used for voice calls while flying; just 19 percent support it. Another 30 percent are neutral.

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