The Federal Communications Commission took a big step towards allowing in-flight phone calls during air travel on Thursday, voting 3-2 to review its rules that ban them. Months ago, the new FCC chair Tom Wheeler proposed that the agency look at lifting the decades-old ban, which the agency put in place for technical reasons. Now that his proposal has passed, the agency will look at whether the ban should be lifted. In a USA Today op-ed published on Thursday in support of changing the rules, Wheeler noted that "we will collect and carefully review consumer and technical input before taking any final action." As part of its review process, the FCC will take public comment on the proposal.
So hold that rage about the state of air travel for just a bit longer: today's decision doesn't guarantee that passengers will be able to whip out their phones and talk their flights away. For one thing, the Department of Transportation is considering imposing its own ban on in-flight calls as a consumer issue. Plus, there are a number of technical and practical considerations individual airlines would have to address before allowing in-flight cell phone voice calls and texts, meaning that the rules change, which would allow them to address those concerns, wouldn't lead the an immediate change in day-to-day travel.
Before the FCC vote on Thursday, Wheeler explained his ambivalence over the idea of in-flight voice calls, though not the ban itself: "I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," Wheeler said, "But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function."