House Panel Approves Bill to Ban Phone Calls on Planes

The House Transportation Committee rebukes the FCC.

A plane comes in for a landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at dusk November 1, 2013. Earlier in the day a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle inside the airport, killing a security agent, creating scenes of chaos and causing widespread flight disruptions. 
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
Feb. 11, 2014, 6:27 a.m.

The House Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee voted un­an­im­ously Tues­day to ad­vance le­gis­la­tion that would ban cell-phone calls on planes. The bill is a sharp re­buke of a pro­pos­al by the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion to lift its cur­rent pro­hib­i­tion on in-flight calls.

“As any­one who flies knows, air­plane cab­ins are noisy, crowded, and con­fined,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, the com­mit­tee chair­man and au­thor of the bill. “Sub­ject­ing pas­sen­gers to po­ten­tially mul­tiple, loud phone con­ver­sa­tions in such close quar­ters would ob­vi­ously di­min­ish the com­fort of any flight. It is just plain com­mon sense that while on a plane with so many oth­er people it will be in every­one’s best in­terest to keep phone calls out of the cab­in.”

Shuster ar­gued that it’s fine to al­low pas­sen­gers to text and browse the Web on their phones, but he’s op­posed to calls that might dis­turb oth­ers. 

Rep. Nick Ra­hall, the top Demo­crat on the com­mit­tee, ar­gued that in-flight phone use is a ser­i­ous safety and com­fort is­sue. He said that un­like an Amtrak train, it’s not feas­ible to have a “quiet car” on a plane where people can avoid noisy con­ver­sa­tions. Demo­crat­ic Rep. Grace Na­pol­it­ano noted she fre­quently has to fly back and forth to her dis­trict in Cali­for­nia and said no one should be “bom­barded with in­form­a­tion you don’t want to know.”

The bill, H.R. 3676, would dir­ect the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment to en­act new reg­u­la­tions ban­ning in-flight calls ex­cept for the flight crew or law-en­force­ment of­ficers. Shuster ar­gued that it’s not the FCC’s job to reg­u­late calls on planes.

The FCC has a long-stand­ing ban on in-flight calls based on tech­nic­al con­cerns about in­ter­fer­ence with ground net­works. In Novem­ber, FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er an­nounced he would move ahead with a pro­pos­al to lift the ban, cit­ing new tech­no­lo­gies that can avoid the in­ter­fer­ence prob­lems.

But Wheel­er, who had just taken of­fice a few weeks earli­er, faced a swift pub­lic blow­back from people afraid of get­ting stuck in a small space near an ob­nox­ious con­ver­sa­tion.

Wheel­er cla­ri­fied that he per­son­ally didn’t want to have a phone call near him on a plane, but he ar­gued that if the tech­nic­al basis for the FCC’s rules is gone, the agency should lift the ban. In Decem­ber, the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to be­gin ac­cept­ing pub­lic com­ments on the pro­pos­al. But even Demo­crat­ic Com­mis­sion­er Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel, who voted to move ahead, ex­pressed con­cern about the plan and in­dic­ated she may not sup­port any fi­nal ac­tion to al­low in-flight calls.

Ahead of the FCC vote, Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­thony Foxx said his de­part­ment would ex­plore en­act­ing its own rules against in-flight calls.

Shuster’s bill now moves to the full House for con­sid­er­a­tion.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der has in­tro­duced sim­il­ar le­gis­la­tion in the up­per cham­ber, but a spokes­man for the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee did not com­ment on wheth­er the pan­el plans to take up the bill.  

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