DOT may al­low air­lines to let fliers get di­aled in

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Andy Pasz­tor

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors are lean­ing to­ward al­low­ing air­line pas­sen­gers to rou­tinely make phone calls dur­ing flights — so long as trav­el­ers are warned in ad­vance about po­ten­tial midair dis­trac­tions.

Pro­posed rules re­leased Thurs­day by the Trans­porta­tion De­part­ment en­vi­sion leav­ing it up to in­di­vid­ual carriers to de­ter­mine if they want to per­mit voice calls us­ing on­board Wi-Fi sys­tems, which are be­com­ing more so­phis­ti­cated. But if phone chats are al­lowed, the agency said it may man­date carriers and tick­ets agents pro­vide a clear heads-up to pas­sen­gers to “en­sure air trav­el­ers are not un­will­ingly ex­posed” to such chat­ter.

A fi­nal de­ci­sion prob­a­bly is years away and would be made by a new trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary who will be ad­vised, most likely, by a dif­fer­ent head of the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion. In­dus­try and pas­sen­ger com­ments also could dra­mat­i­cally al­ter the de­part­ment’s cur­rent di­rec­tion.

Be­fore the pro­posal could be­come of­fi­cial, DOT of­fi­cials will an­a­lyze what is ex­pected to be a tor­rent of pub­lic com­ments, many of which are likely to strongly op­pose the idea of al­low­ing phone calls in cab­ins.

The agency also in­di­cated it is still con­sid­er­ing whether to slap an out­right ban on on­board Wi-Fi phone calls af­fect­ing all flights through U.S. airspace, in­clud­ing for­eign air­lines serv­ing U.S. cities, in line with ear­lier com­ments by fed­eral and in­dus­try of­fi­cials sug­gest­ing wide­spread voice com­mu­ni­ca­tions would pose un­ac­cept­able in­tru­sions for many pas­sen­gers.

The DOT be­gan seek­ing pub­lic in­put on this highly charged topic more than two years ago. It noted on Thurs­day that “a sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity of in­di­vid­ual com­menters ex­pressed op­po­si­tion to voice calls on the grounds that they are dis­turb­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the con­fined space of an air­craft cabin.” From the start, there ap­peared to be con­sen­sus that pri­vacy con­cerns would out­weigh eco­nomic in­cen­tives.

Still, if some U.S. carriers con­clude they can em­brace the po­ten­tial for ad­di­tional rev­enue with­out alien­at­ing too many of their cus­tomers, Thurs­day’s move could end up open­ing the door to op­tional ser­vices that over the years have been deemed ob­jec­tion­able by many fliers.

Long-stand­ing Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion reg­u­la­tions ban mak­ing phone calls us­ing cer­tain ra­dio fre­quen­cies on air­craft, and the FAA over the years has stressed the im­por­tance of abid­ing by those re­stric­tions.

But as Wi-Fi sys­tems be­come more wide­spread and ca­pa­ble, DOT projects that phone calls via such tech­nol­ogy are likely to im­prove in qual­ity, even as they be­come less ex­pen­sive and more of a draw for pas­sen­gers.

Against this back­drop, the pro­posed rule adopts an un­usual le­gal strat­egy. It ar­gues that mak­ing it pos­si­ble for some pas­sen­gers to chat on phones—with­out pro­vid­ing ad­e­quate no­tice to oth­ers who un­wit­tingly could hear those con­ver­sa­tions—would amount to an un­fair and de­cep­tive sales prac­tice.

In a news re­lease, the agency said of­fi­cials be­lieve “that con­sumers would be un­fairly sur­prised and harmed if they learned only af­ter the pur­chase of a ticket,” or even af­ter board­ing a plane, that the car­rier per­mit­ted calls on flights.

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