DOT to take comments on voice call ban next week

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The US Department of Transportation (DOT) will start taking comments next week on whether to implement a ban on voice calls in passenger cabins, a regulatory document filed on 21 February shows.

The department is expected to open a comment period on 24 February to help determine “whether voice calls on aircraft constitute an unfair practice to consumers” per federal regulations, and whether the calls should be banned or restricted if that is the case.

“While the department does not oppose the use of cell phones and other mobile devices for mobile wireless data services, such as sending and receiving text messages and e-mail, there is concern that the pervasiveness of in-flight voice calls could create an oppressive environment for passengers, especially for those on long-haul flights,” the DOT says.

The debate over whether or not to allow calls in flight gained momentum late last year after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the DOT branch overseeing air safety, allowed carriers to seek approvals for using phones and tablets during all phases of flight. FAA's previous guidance required portable electronic devices to be turned off and stowed below 10,000ft (3,048m).

While most US carriers have since updated their policies to allow passengers to use the devices from gate to gate, the devices’ cellular networks must be de-activated in accordance with separate rules issued by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The FCC first banned passengers from using mobile devices’ 800MHz frequency in 1991 to prevent interference of cellular ground networks. However, that group announced in December that it would consider changing the rules to allow cellular connectivity on flights, and gathered its own comments on the issue through a separate process that ended on 14 February.

While most US carriers have since updated their policies to allow passengers to use their devices the whole time in flight, many appear to be hesitant about allowing voice calls.

For example, Delta Air Lines has said that it has received “overwhelming sentiment” from passengers to continue a policy that prohibits voice calls, and Alaska Airlines has told Flightglobal that it continues to disallow the calls per customers’ wishes. United Airlines has also noted that customers have expressed concerns about the calls and says that customer and crew feedback will be taken into consideration if the FCC lifts the ban.

Internet-based voice calls can be offered today through satellite-based wi-fi systems without changing any rules. However, revising the FCC rules would increase the ways airlines can offer the calls.

The advanced notice of proposed rulemaking is scheduled for publication in the US federal register on 24 February, initiating a 30-day comment period.