If there's a hot-button item among travelers (other than airline fees), it's whether to allow cellphone voice calls on airplanes. The Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission seem to be at odds over whether to change the current rules prohibiting such calls.
The DOT is asking fliers for their opinions, even though the agency won't be making the decision, at least not on technical grounds. The FCC last year started the process of considering changing its rule that prohibits such on-board phone calls above 10,000 feet.
DOT concedes that the FCC has the authority to decide "whether cellphones or other mobile devices used during flight would interfere with cellular networks on the ground and should continue to be banned."
From its website: "Allowing voice calls on passenger aircraft may be harmful because people tend to talk louder on cellphones than when they're having face-to-face conversations. They are also likely to talk more and further increase the noise on a flight, as passengers would not be simply talking to the persons sitting next to them but can call whomever they like. While some planes may already have seat-back phones in place, we believe that most are rarely used and the department's concern is not about individual calls but rather the cumulative impact of allowing in-flight calls in close quarters."
(The FAA last year allowed use of personal electronic devices such as iPads and Kindles below 10,000 feet.)
An Associated Press-GfK poll last fall found that 48% of Americans oppose allowing cellphones to be used for voice while flying, compared with 19% who support it. Since then, only Delta Air Lines has said up front it won't allow voice calls.
Meanwhile, the FCC points out that even if the agency changes the rules, it would be up to airlines to decide whether to allow voice phone calls in flight. They would have to install an access system (similar to Wi-Fi), but they wouldn't be required to do so.
Back to the DOT. The agency wants to know what you think about the potential rule change. It's collecting comments until March 26.