U.S. DOT to Seek Public Comments on Cell Phone Use on Planes

The U.S. Department of Transportation is the latest federal agency to look at whether in-flight mobile phone calls should be allowed on aircraft. Public comments are expected to be sought by the DOT later this year.

phone use on airplanes

The U.S. Department of Transportation appears to be readying plans to collect formal public comments on whether or not cell phone calls should be allowed on aircraft in the United States.

In a July 2014 "Report on Significant Rulemakings," the DOT unveiled a proposed timeline that could result in public comments being collected from Dec. 4, 2014, through Feb. 4, 2015, according to the agency.

A spokesperson for the DOT declined to talk with eWEEK about the proposed comment period or about the future possibility of any in-flight cell phone call ban or related action.

The mention of the proposed comment period in the DOT rulemaking report only said that the agency is "seeking comment on whether it should adopt a rule to restrict voice communications on passengers' mobile wireless devices on scheduled flights within, to and from the United States." Such a proposed comment period first would have to be reviewed by DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx by Aug. 18 and then by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget by Dec. 1, according to the document.

If approved, it would be posted for public comments. The DOT's potential actions on cell phone use in airplanes follow similar reviews by the FCC, according to the report. "The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that if adopted would, among other things, create a pathway for airlines to permit the use of cellphones or other mobile wireless devices to make or receive calls on board aircraft. DOT supports the FCC's proposal to revise its rules in light of the technology available and to expand access to mobile wireless data services on board aircraft; however, under the Department's aviation consumer protection authority and because of concerns raised, we are seeking comment on whether to ban voice calls on aircraft."

Back in February, the DOT issued an "Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (ANPRM) seeking comments on whether it should adopt a rule to restrict voice communications by airline passengers. Enough comments were received to trigger the latest "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (NPRM), which was published in the July DOT report. That NPRM is still being drafted, and no final rule has yet been made.

The discussions and controversy over cell phone use in aircraft have been simmering for some time in the United States. The FCC has been studying the issue for some time, and late last year began a deeper look into the matter, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

In October 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implemented rules changes that allowed airline passengers to use most other personal electronic devices (PEDs) during flights, according to a previous eWEEK report. The FAA continued to ban cell phone use during flights, but allowed cell phones to be placed into airplane mode during flights.

The FAA action permitted airline passengers to use e-readers, gaming devices, video players and similar devices on their flights. The relaxation of the flight rules came after the FAA had been looking into the PED issue for more than a year so it could garner opinions from experts, including airline representatives, aviation manufacturers, passengers, pilots, flight attendants and the mobile technology industry, according to the agency.

The FAA in August 2012 created a working group made up of government and industry leaders, called the Aviation Rulemaking Committee, to examine the rules and procedures that regulated PEDs so that they could decide whether policy changes are possible, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

Interestingly, cell phone usage actually comes under the jurisdiction of the FCC, which is a key reason that the FAA has not made rulings that could permit cell phone use on airplanes, according to the FAA.

Ultimately, the decision to allow the use of most PEDs on flights came after the PED Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) concluded that most commercial airplanes can tolerate radio interference signals from PEDs, the FAA reported. Concerns about possible interference was a key reason for past use limitations for PEDs on flights.

The FAA had been hinting about the potential changes since March 2013, when the agency announced that it was considering flight rules changes that would allow U.S. airline passengers to use their e-reader devices during takeoffs and landings. The agency has been under pressure to let people use reading devices on planes or to provide solid scientific evidence about why the practice could be dangerous.