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Congress considering ban on in-flight calls on airlines

This post has been corrected. See the note at bottom for details.

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress clearly like to talk. And talk.

But when it comes to sitting on a plane next to a passenger jabbering on the phone through a long flight, a lot of lawmakers prefer silence, so much so they are contemplating legislation to stop in-flight calling.

“The last thing I’d want is to be seated next to someone who’s carrying on a five-hour conversation from L.A. to D.C.,’’ said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank.), calling a plane probably the “last space in America, except underwater” where the public can avoid cellphone conversations.

“Simply put, the flying experience in the United States would be forever changed for the worse if voice calls are allowed on flights,” added Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).

The political turbulence that in-flight calling faces comes as the Federal Communications Commission meets Thursday to consider whether to move forward with a proposal to allow calls and broadband access, such as emailing, web-surfing and texting, above 10,000 feet. If the agency approves a rule change, after a period of public comment, it would be up to each airline to decide whether to permit calls on their planes.

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Plenty of members of Congress are promising to weigh in; even those who are often seen in Capitol hallways with phones stuck to their ears hate the idea of in-flight calling. The issue has done something that few other issues have achieved in this hyper-partisan Congress: brought together members of opposing parties.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) is gathering colleagues’ signatures for a letter to the FCC opposing in-flight phone calls, citing strong public opposition to the idea of a “cabin full of people talking on cellphones.”

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said this week that he plans to introduce a bill prohibiting in-flight phone calls, saying: “If passengers are going to be forced to listen to the gossip in the aisle seat, it’s going to make for a very long flight.”

The usually regulatory-wary Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has pledged to introduce similar legislation, if necessary. “Stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies from those who wander around shouting personal details” into the phone, he said.

The issue strikes close to home for many members of Congress, who are among the most frequent fliers. Some California lawmakers log more than 100,000 miles a year.

Even the tech-savvy Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin), who’s pushed for a mobile Congress that would allow lawmakers to cast votes remotely from their districts, said, “I would hate to see a passenger stuck in a seat next to somebody who talks on the phone as loud as I do when I’m on the phone.”

Member of Congress are accustomed to limits on the use of cellphones. House members only recently were permitted to tweet from the chamber but still are prohibited from talking on their phones in the chamber.

Some lawmakers are wary that airlines will see in-flight calls as a new opportunity to make a buck, charging passengers to sit in a non-talking section or charging people to use their phones.

Congress tried to ban phone calls on planes once before.

The issue came up in 2008 after the European Union moved to allow passengers to use phones while a plane was in the air. The measure, which never made it to the House floor, was called the Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace Act, or HANG UP Act.

For the record, 5:25 p.m. Dec. 10: An earlier caption accompanying a video with this post said that on Thursday the House would consider a proposal to ban airlines from allowing cellphone calls while a plane is in the air. The proposal will be considered by the Federal Communications Commission.

 

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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