Pai Circulates Order to Terminate Controversial Airplane Cellphone Docket

April 10, 2017–FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated an order today to terminate a controversial proceeding in which the FCC proposed to permit airlines to allow passengers to use wireless devices for voice communications above 10,000 feet. “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,” Mr. Pai said in a statement released this afternoon. “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.”

The FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in the proceeding in 2013 on a 3-2 vote in an early controversial proceeding for then-Chairman Tom Wheeler (TR Daily, Dec. 12, 2013).

Mr. Pai and Commissioner Mike O’Rielly dissented from the 2013 adoption of the NPRM, citing concerns about the licensing precedent that the proceeding would establish as well as the failure to fully consider public safety and national security concerns. Then-Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted for the item while indicating that she would not support a rule authorizing such communications.

At the FCC meeting at which the NPRM was adopted, Mr. Wheeler said he also didn’t want to sit next to passengers chatting away. But he said that the FCC’s job was not to address behavioral issues. “This is a technical order,” he said. “This is a rule about technology. This is not a rule about usage.”

Without FCC rule changes, Mr. Wheeler said, passengers could not make voice calls using cellular networks. However, such calls could still be permitted if allowed by airlines over on-board Wi-Fi networks. The FCC’s proceeding sparked outrage from many air travelers worried that they would have to put up with fellow passengers talking on their wireless devices for hours while airborne, including frequent travelers such as members of Congress (TR Daily, Feb. 18, 2014). Legislation has been introduced in Congress to ban voice calls on regularly scheduled flights. Airline flight attendants also blasted the proposal, saying it could lead to fights among passengers and jeopardize safety in cabins.

But the FCC’s proposal drew support from some telecom, aircraft communications, consumer electronics, aviation industry, and other entities.

In December, the Transportation Department released an often-delayed NPRM proposing to require airlines and ticket agents to disclose to consumers if airlines permit passengers to make wireless voice calls on airborne aircraft (TR Daily, Dec. 9, 2016). DoT said it “is also seeking comment on whether disclosure is sufficient or whether it should simply ban voice calls on flights within, to, or from the United States.”

DoT noted that in response to an advance notice of proposed rulemaking issued in 2014 seeking comment on whether it should ban voice calls on aircraft (TR Daily, March 4, 2014), “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.”

In 2015, a DoT advisory committee recommended that the agency leave it up to airlines to decide whether to permit passengers to use their wireless devices for voice calls during flight (TR Daily, Sept. 2, 2015). “The proposed rule is still under careful review. All views will be considered during the final decision making process,” a DoT spokesperson said today when asked for comment on the draft FCC order.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, praised Mr. Pai’s circulation of the draft order. “The FCC is making the right decision not to pursue lifting the ban on in-flight calls,” she said. “The traveling public and crew members do not want voice calls on planes. It would jeopardize safety, security, increase conflict and exponentially raise the annoyance level of everyone in the cabin. Now the DOT should follow the FCC’s lead and ban voice calls in flight. That’s the only sensible, safe and secure course of action.”

The Air Line Pilots Association said it “applauds Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai for his efforts to keep the ban on cellular voice calls in-flight. Security of flight is essential and ALPA remains involved with various efforts to maintain and enhance aviation security. The overall safety of an entire flight, both on the ground and in flight, is primary. The use of cell phones by passengers may have a negative operational safety impact on the ability of flight attendants to perform their required duties. Additionally, the flight deck crew’s involvement may also be required if a diversion is necessitated due to unruly passenger behavior.”

Vaughn Jennings, managing director-government and regulatory communications for Airlines for America, said his group “welcomes the FCC’s decision today. We have long held that regulation of mobile cell phone calls during flight is not a matter for government to regulate. Airlines should be able to determine what services can be safely offered in flight and make those decisions based on what is in the best interests of their passengers and crewmembers. It is also important to note that we are not aware of any carriers that currently allow voice calls or plan to do so in the future.”

CTIA had no comment on the circulation of the draft order. —Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily