The tides may be turning for in-flight mobile connectivity in the United States. Long-term FAA reauthorization legislation introduced by the US House transportation committee on Friday omits a provision that would have imposed a federal ban on the in-flight use of mobile phones and VoIP.
The provision, known in standalone form as the Hang-Up Act before legislators tied it to FAA reauthorization, is among a number of controversial issues that stopped previous FAA bills from moving forward and becoming law, notes the transportation committee in a statement.
The Senate has already signaled its intent to leave well enough alone, electing last year to be silent on the issue of mobile connectivity and VoIP when it passed a version of FAA reauthorization.
In-flight mobile connectivity stakeholders have long lobbied against the Hang-Up Act on Capitol Hill under the umbrella of the In-flight Passenger Communications Coalition (IPCC).
They argue, among other things, that airlines - not the federal government - should decide whether or not to offer passengers this service, and that imposing a federal ban would be akin to legislating etiquette.
Responding to House transportation committee's latest decision, IPCC executive director Carl Biersack tells RWG: "The IPCC has worked hard to communicate with Congressional aviation policy decision makers over the past two years. Our message was heard - that in-flight connectivity is safe, secure and successful. Those same decision makers asked questions, listened and learned."
Convincing US travelers of the merits of in-flight mobile connectivity could prove far more difficult. Even though over 7 million calls have been placed or received in-flight on carriers, and complaints are virtually nonexistent, US passengers are wary of chatty Kathy seatmates who could make travel even more of a hell than it is today.
But the wheels of charge grind slowly so travelers probably don't need to concern themselves about the issue just yet. The legislative process in the 112th Congress has just begun. "The House has its bill. The Senate has its bill. But we really are at the start of the legislative process; both chambers have to vote on their version of the bill and then the two committees of jurisdiction will meet in a conference and produce a consensus product for each chamber to vote on one more time," says Biersack.
Even if FAA reauthorization is enacted into law without Hang-Up Act legislation, in-flight mobile connectivity will need to get the blessing of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FAA. The former agency might be tempted to again issue a notice of proposed rulemaking to lift the ban on the in-flight use of cell phones, allowing all parties to weigh in on the matter.
Meanwhile, Biersack remains confident that US operators will ultimately be able to offer the service. "In the future Americans will be enjoying the same connectivity at cruising altitude that have here on the ground," he says.