US official: Airlines have final say on in-flight phone calls; idea outraged some passengers

NEW YORK, N.Y. – A day after setting off an uproar among travellers opposed to the idea in-flight phone calls, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is backtracking, saying he personally isn’t in favour of it.

“We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes. I feel that way myself,” chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement Friday.

On Thursday, Wheeler said it was time for the agency to review “our outdated and restrictive rules” about cellphone use on airplanes. The rules have been in place for 22 years.

On Friday, he said the agency’s proposal recognizes that there is no technical reason to prohibit the use of mobile devices. He said the agency’s role is to advise if there is a safety issue with using phones on planes.

But Wheeler acknowledged that ultimately it will be up to individual airlines to decide if they want to allow calls.

“We believe that airlines are best positioned to make such decisions,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler emphasized that “our proposal does not impose any requirement that airlines should provide voice connectivity.” The word “not” was underlined.

His spokesman declined requests for an interview.

Most airlines have said they would study the issue and survey their customers. Delta Air Lines was the only carrier to outright reject voice calls, regardless of what the FCC decides.

“It struck a nerve … their phones have been ringing,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group

A petition opposing the FCC’s move posted on the White House website attracted nearly 1,250 signatures by Friday afternoon.

Posted by a self-described frequent flier from Virginia, it said: “Forcing (passengers) to listen to the inane, loud, private, personal conversations of a stranger is perhaps the worst idea the FCC has come up with to date.”