WASHINGTON — Rules against making cellphone calls during airline flights are "outdated," and it's time to change them, federal regulators said Thursday, drawing immediate howls of protest from flight attendants, airline officials and others.
Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a statement Thursday that the commission was proposing greater in-flight access to mobile broadband. The proposal will be considered at the commission's Dec. 12 meeting.
"The time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," Wheeler said, adding that modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably.
The proposal would also allow passengers to use their smartphones to send email, text and download data. The proposal would apply to flights when they are over 10,000 feet in altitude, but not during takeoffs and landings.
The move came just 16 days after Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cellular telephone industry, took over the post of FCC chairman. The proposal to ease cellphone restrictions was greeted enthusiastically by the Telecommunications Industry Association.
The association "supports initiatives to make mobile broadband services, including Internet access, available to passengers and flight crews aboard commercial airliners and private aircraft," said Grant Seiffert, president of the trade group. "Already, substantial (information and communications technology) manufacturer and vendor interest exists in this space, and our members are investing in related opportunities for growth internationally."
But early reaction from the airline industry and labor unions was skeptical. Flight attendants and others have worried that a plane full of chattering passengers could lead to arguments and undermine safety.
"Passengers overwhelmingly reject cellphone use in the aircraft cabin. The FCC should not proceed with this proposal," the Association of Flight Attendants said in a statement in response to the FCC chairman's comments.
"In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating negative effects on aviation safety and security that are great and far too risky," the flight attendants group said.
Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Hudson Crossing, said, "There are bad ideas, and then there's this.
"Unlike the ability to use their personal electronics and Wi-Fi from gate to gate, passengers don't want this," he added. "The constant chatter of passengers on their mobile phones has the potential to further increase tension among already stressed-out passengers. It will be a catalyst for increased cases of 'air rage.' "
Should the FCC lift its restrictions on cellphone use, airlines would still have the option of deciding whether to equip planes with picocells — small, satellite base stations — to handle calls. American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said the airline will wait to see what the FCC does. "However, our Wi-Fi at this time doesn't allow voice calls."
In October, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted restrictions on the use of most personal electronic devices during takeoffs and landings, but not cellphone calls, which fall under the FCC.
If the agency decides to move ahead with the proposal, it would be just the first step in a long rulemaking process that includes soliciting public comment.