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Can you hear me now? I'm 10,000 feet above the ground

Get ready. You'll soon be able to use your phone while flying.

The Federal Communications Commission is moving toward lifting a long-standing ban on cell phone calls in-flight. It would permit calls once a plane reaches 10,000 feet.

Research in recent years has debunked any danger to navigation or pilot-communication posed by cell phones. In October, the Federal Aviation Administration said it will allow passengers to use electronic devices such as e-books and tablets at all altitudes, as long as wireless signals are disabled (operating in “airplane mode”). The FAA also said cell phones pose no safety threat to aircraft.

The FCC will meet to discuss and issue the proposal in December. After considering public comments, it will issue a final decision. Assuming the FCC permits cell phone use, U.S. airlines would then have to decide individually whether to allow calls, as many Asian and Middle Eastern airlines already do. Representatives from American and United said they would wait for the FCC’s decision and then study the issue. Southwest and JetBlue also said they would consider allowing calls, depending on customer attitudes and changing cultural mores. Delta said its passengers have consistently voiced opposition to the idea.

The Association of Flight Attendants, the country’s largest union representing flight attendants, voiced strong opposition, citing the danger that passengers will be distracted from safety messages and instructions, and could be disruptive in an emergency if they are trying to make cell phone calls.

Curtis Grimm at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business says polls have found a majority of consumers opposed to the idea as well.

“We’re pretty cramped on planes,” says Grimm. “And the trend is for airlines to put more and more seats into the same space. So I think many people would object to those phone calls going on in such a cramped space.”

Commuter railroads have created quiet cars for passengers who don’t want to have to listen to fellow-passengers’ phone conversations. Airlines might similarly designate special rows or sections of the plane for cell-callers, and direct other passengers to rows and sections where calls aren’t allowed.

“You could charge more for someone to be able to use their phone,” says Grimm. “Airlines are good at differential pricing, and squeezing out some more money from consumers for anything.”

But Grimm adds that cordoning off entire rows or sections of a plane could be a logistical nightmare. And, he adds, just like a haze used to drift forward from the smoking section to fill the rest of the plane, loud voices could easily be overheard, and annoy fellow-passengers, several rows away. 

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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