DOT may allow airlines to let fliers get dialed in
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.