The Federal Communications Commission took a key step toward allowing cellphone calls on planes, but other government officials don't expect travelers will be chatting from 35,000 feet any time soon.
Commissioners voted 3 to 2 on Thursday to allow public comment on a proposal to end a 22-year-old ban on mobile phone use on commercial flights. Chairman Tom Wheeler, who supports lifting the ban, said the decision is all about keeping up with new technology.
But even Wheeler and the rest of the commission said they realize an FCC decision would not require airlines to allow cellphone calls. Even if the agency's ban is lifted, he said, individual airlines must first seek an FCC license and then install technology to allow cellphone calls from planes.
"This is a technological rule," he said. "We simply propose that because new technology makes the old rule obsolete, the FCC should get government out from between airlines and their passengers."
Wheeler said airlines can continue to ban voice calls but allow passengers to use their cellphones to send emails and texts and to surf the Web. Wheeler formerly worked for 12 years as the head of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn., a trade group for the wireless communications industry.
Approval by the FCC would require a second vote after 60 to 90 days of public comment.
Since 1991, the FCC has banned cellphone calls because of concerns that the signals from passengers' phones on planes could interfere with airline navigation systems and wireless networks on the ground.
But technology now used in Europe, Asia and the Middle East eliminates the problem by routing onboard cellphone signals through small mobile base stations, known as pico cells, which connect cellular calls via satellite to networks on the ground. The airlines can regulate and charge for calls through the mobile stations.
FCC members who opposed the decision argued that allowing cellphone calls on planes could jeopardize safety, either by enabling terrorists to communicate or trigger explosive devices or by prompting disputes between passengers over noisy conversations.
"This proposal has been generating negative responses from those who work on planes," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. "I think our safety would be compromised."
The decision came only hours after Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a statement saying the Transportation Department might consider adopting a ban on cellphone calls after an outcry over the FCC's plan to consider the proposal.
"Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight — and I am concerned about this possibility as well," Foxx said.
Flight attendant groups say they have begun to lobby members to Congress to draft a bill to block cellphone calls.
"Flight attendants and passengers are united on this issue: There should be no voice calls in-flight," said Veda Shook, president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants, which represents about 60,000 flight attendants. "As first responders in the aircraft cabin, flight attendants know that this reckless FCC proposal would have negative effects on aviation safety and security."
In response to the FCC's plans to consider lifting the ban, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) introduced bills in the last few days to prohibit cellphone calls on planes.
"This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly two million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts," Alexander said in a statement.
The FCC's move comes about two months after the Federal Aviation Administration eased restrictions on airline passengers' use of portable electronic devices during all phases of a flight.
Times staff writer Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.