FCC kills plan to allow phone calls on planes – good idea or terrible?

You decide!

Poll Ajit Pai, chair of US comms watchdog the FCC, has unilaterally decided that no one wants to make cellphone calls on planes, and he killed off a 2013 proposal by the regulator to potentially allow them.

In a statement Monday, Pai stated: "I stand with airline pilots, flight attendants, and America's flying public against the FCC's ill-conceived 2013 plan to allow people to make cellphone calls on planes."

Maintaining the first-person approach to decision-making, he continues: "I do not believe that moving forward with this plan is in the public interest. Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans across the country who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet."

A quick straw poll of the El Reg San Francisco office reveals that only half believe in Pai's victory, agreeing with the sentiment that banning phone calls will make their lives easier onboard. The other half feel that prescribing how people use their personal technology on the assumed basis that it will annoy others is short-sighted and nannying.

What do you think? Let us know below.

Reasoned debate?

The idea of relaxing the rules against mobile phone usage on planes came under previous FCC chair Tom Wheeler, who argued that it was time to "review our outdated and restrictive rules."

Previous restrictions on cellphone usage were put in place in 1991 out of concern that phones could interfere with planes' navigation and electrical systems. The technologies that made such interference a possibility have long since disappeared however, and the rationale for retaining the rules seems to be based on habit and the sense that allowing cellphone usage would make an already unpleasant cramped environment worse.

The authorities looked at getting rid of those rules back in 2005, but fears about security following the 9/11 attacks in September 2001 put them on the back burner.

It wasn't until 2013 – when the FCC's engineering chief and the head of its wireless telecommunications bureau both argued for a review of the rules and outlined their logic in a blog post – that the topic came up again.

The FCC wasn't proposing that cellphones could be used on planes, only that it would remove its rules [PDF] preventing usage. Any decision about whether to allow it would then have been the right of individual airlines in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Transportation. Pai's decision effectively kills off that possibility. The consultation had received just under 1,500 comments as recently as February.

Gogo or Nono?

Pai's decision flies in the face of what has been a move toward greater personal freedom for digital devices on flights. Back in 2013, the FAA announced it was relaxing the rules on the use of electronics on flights to allow them to be used throughout a flight so long as the plane is flying at over 10,000 feet. Some airlines immediately relaxed their rules.

The European Aviation Safety Agency followed suit, and in-flight internet provider Gogo also developed a calling system to allow people to use their own phones to make calls.

As Pai noted, not everyone was thrilled with the idea however. The Association of Flight Attendants argued: "The FCC should not proceed with this proposal ... Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe."

Regardless of where you stand on phone calls on planes, however, Ajit Pai's increasingly personalized approach to federal regulation, where whatever he thinks at a given moment becomes official policy, should be a cause for concern.

Pai was a persistent and vocal critic of previous chair Tom Wheeler, particularly over what he claimed was an abuse of his position to pursue personal agendas. In recent weeks, Pai has shown himself to be far more willing to conflate his personal views with what is best for the country as a whole. ®

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