Last updated: 12:48 PM ET, Tue December 13 2016

DOT Proposes Paving The Way For In-Flight Phone Calls

Airlines & Airports U.S. Department of Transportation Rich Thomaselli December 09, 2016

DOT Proposes Paving The Way For In-Flight Phone Calls

PHOTO: Think being stuck in the middle seat is bad now? Wait until you're between two competing phone conversations. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)  

Did the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) just give a signal that it is willing to pave the way for cell phone calls on-board during flights?

Many think the agency just did.

The DOT on Thursday announced its “proposal to require airlines and ticket agents to disclose in advance to consumers if the carrier operating their flight allows passengers to make voice calls using mobile wireless devices.”

Translation? The DOT is leaving the decision in the hands of the respective airlines until it makes a formal, final ruling – which, some aviation observers say, could still be a year or more away.

Still, the decision Thursday, while not specifically spelled out, was enough of a writing on the wall for some to respond immediately.

Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), members of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, again reiterated their call from March to prohibit anyone on a commercial aircraft, except the crew and law enforcement, from talking on mobile devices during flight.

 “Small seats, little legroom and, now, cell phone chatter – air travel could become even less comfortable if consumers are surrounded by passengers talking on mobile phones,” the senators said in a joint statement.

“Passengers sitting for hours in the confined space of an aircraft cabin should not have to suffer though other passengers’ conversations on their mobile devices. Notifications of annoyances is no substitute for the zone of privacy that airline passengers pay for and deserve. The Transportation Department should prohibit anyone on an aircraft, except the crew and law enforcement, from talking on a mobile device during flight.”

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission’s rules prohibit the use of mobile devices on certain radio frequencies onboard aircraft, including for voice calls.  However, the existing Federal Communications Commission rules do not cover Wi-Fi and other means by which it may become possible to make voice calls.   

“Consumers deserve to have clear and accurate information about whether an airline permits voice calls before they purchase a ticket and board the aircraft,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a press release.  “(Thursday’s) proposal will ensure that air travelers are not unwillingly exposed to voice calls, as many of them are troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight.”

DOT believes that allowing voice calls, without providing adequate notice, would be an unfair and deceptive practice. Even with advanced warning, though, some passengers just don’t want to be privy to others talking on their cell phones during flight.

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) also voiced its concerns.

“ASTA is in the process of analyzing DOT’s proposal and we plan to consult with our members and file comments,” said Eben Peck, SVP, Government & Industry Affairs for ASTA. “At first blush, while we appreciate DOT exempting small travel agencies from the proposed regulations we are concerned about the potential for yet another federally-mandated consumer disclosure on top of the multiple disclosures – code-sharing, insecticide, hazardous materials, etc. – agents have to grapple with on each and every transaction today.”

The DOT is still seeking public comment on whether disclosure is sufficient or whether it should simply ban voice calls on flights within, to, or from the United States. Members of the public can comment on the NPRM at regulations.gov, docket number DOT-OST-2014-0002.  Comments must be received within 60 days of the date the notice is published in the Federal Register.

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