Gov’t proposal envisions phone calls on airline flights

By on December 9, 2016


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WASHINGTON—Airlines passengers would be allowed to make phone calls during flights using Wi-Fi with the permission of the air carrier under regulations the Department of Transportation proposed Thursday. Flight attendants and others have complained that the calls could be disruptive.

The proposal envisions leaving it up to airlines whether to allow the calls. But carriers would be required to inform passengers at the time they purchase a ticket if the calls are allowed. That would give passengers the opportunity to make other travel arrangements if they don’t want to risk the possibility of sitting near passengers making phone calls.

There is a 60-day comment period and the proposal leaves the door open to the possibility that federal officials could still impose an outright ban.

The Federal Communications Commission prohibits passengers from making cellphone calls during flights, but not Wi-Fi calls.

“Today’s proposal will ensure that air travellers are not unwillingly exposed to voice calls, as many of them are troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cellphones in flight,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. In 2014, the department issued a request for public comments on the possibility of permitting the calls and the response was overwhelmingly negative.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said anything short of a ban on calls “is reckless.” Flight attendants have said previously that they fear the calls could lead to fights between passengers who want to make calls and passengers who don’t want to listen to the conversations.

“It threatens aviation security and increases the likelihood of conflict in the skies. It threatens safety for crews and passengers,” Nelson said.

However, the U.S. airlines’ trade group opposes a government ban on in-flight calls.

“We have long held that this was not a matter for DOT to regulate, and we believe airlines should be able to determine what services can be safely offered in flight and make those decisions based on what is in the best interests of their passengers and crewmembers,” a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, Kathy Grannis Allen, said by email.

Southwest Airlines has no plans to allow voice calls. “Our customers have expressed concerns regarding the potentially disruptive nature of in-flight voice calls,” said Brian Parrish, a spokesman for the Dallas-based airline.

United Airlines said it was reviewing the proposal and would listen to the views of customers and employees. American referred questions to the trade group. Delta and JetBlue did not have an immediate comment.