DoT May Rule Out In-Flight Cellphone Talking

The U.S. Department of Transportation is drafting a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, that could restrict consumers’ ability to talk on their cellphones during airplane flights.

Following last year’s Federal Communications Commissionproposal to overturn decades-old rules barring in-flight cellphone use, the DoT earlier this year issued an invitation for comment as to whether it should adopt a rule to restrict voice communications on passengers’ mobile wireless devices on scheduled flights within, to and from the United States.

“DoT supports the FCC’s proposal to revise its rules in light of the technology available and to expand access to mobile wireless data services on board aircraft. However, under the Department’s aviation consumer protection authority and because of concerns raised, we are seeking comment on whether to ban voice calls on aircraft,” the DoT explained in a recent report.

‘There Is No Final Determination’

“There were enough comments to move forward with a NPRM,” Susan Hendrick, deputy press secretary for the DoT, told the E-Commerce Times. “The NPRM is being drafted as DoT evaluates the comments. At this point, there is no final determination as to what the NPRM will say, let alone a final rule.”

However, DoT General Counsel Kathryn Thomson in a recent speech hinted that the agency was likely to restrict cellphone use in-flight, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The publication of the DoT’s notice is scheduled for December, with a comment period extending into early February 2015.

‘No Legitimate Reason’

“It’s hard to know which travelers will find more annoying: loud seatmates or overreaching regulators,” Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, told the E-Commerce Times.

“There is no legitimate reason for DoT to issue rules like this which do not relate to passenger safety,” Castro added. “Airlines should ban or allow in-flight calls based on the experience they want to provide for their customers.”

Indeed, the airlines’ position is that the DoT should let them decide whether to offer cellphone service as a way to differentiate themselves, the WSJ noted.

‘The Ability to Cause Stress’

“I think there’s a fine line between the government legally allowing people to talk on the phone and the airlines doing the same,” said MilePoint cofounder Edward Pizzarello, who blogs about travel at Pizza in Motion.

“I really don’t see why the government should ban calls completely, because I believe there could be good reasons to allow calls in certain circumstances,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“As a business traveler with kids, I’d welcome the opportunity to say a quick ‘good night!’ to my kids when traveling,” he added. “I enjoy those small moments when I’m away; hence the reason I don’t want the government to take that choice out of my hands.”

At the same time, “I’m not sure there’s a strong enough economic reason for airlines to allow phone calls,” Pizzarello acknowledged. “I do think phone calls have the ability to cause stress amongst passengers, especially given that planes are flying with a lot less empty seats and legroom than they used to.”

‘There Are Reasons to Ban Phone Calls’

Still, the same could be said for a passenger watching a movie without headphones, which is nothing if not a common phenomenon, he pointed out.

“Despite the fact that some folks say flight attendants have enough to worry about, I think they’re well-equipped to tell a passenger to talk more quietly just like they might ask them to turn down the volume on their movie,” he added.

Bottom line: “There are definitely reasons to ban phone calls on airplanes,” Pizzarello asserted, “but they’re not necessarily good ones, especially when such things can be managed by the airlines and their employees.

“Some airlines might want to allow it — like Southwest gives free checked bags,” he concluded. “Others might want to advertise that they’re a quiet airline because they don’t allow calls.”

‘Trying to Regulate Common Decency’

A ban on speaking on the phone at altitudes below 10,000 feet “makes a lot of sense, because you want people to be paying attention,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

Most takeoff and landing accidents happen below that level, he told the E-Commerce Times.

“Above 10,000 feet, there’s no real reason other than the government trying to play nanny,” Entner maintained. “What’s next, barring little children? They’re trying to regulate common decency through government rules — I’d have expected that more from totalitarian countries than the United States.”

Katherine Noyes has been reporting on business and technology for decades. You can find her on Twitter and Google+.

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