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Regulators sending mixed signals over whether to retain ban on in-flight use of cellphones

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WASHINGTON - When it comes to deciding whether airline passengers can use their cellphones in flight, federal agencies are sending different signals to consumers.

The Transportation Department, which regulates aviation consumer issues, indicated in a notice posted online Friday that it is considering retaining the 23-year-old ban on the calls, and asked for public comment.

Two months ago, the Federal Communications Commission voted to pursue allowing the calls. The FCC has responsibility for determining whether the use of cellphones in flight would interfere with cellular networks on the ground.

Polls show that many passengers, particularly frequent fliers, oppose allowing in-flight calls from passengers' cellphones. Echoing their concerns, the Transportation Department said it believes allowing passengers to make cellphone calls "may be harmful or injurious" to others.

"People tend to talk louder on cellphones than when they're having face-to-face conversations," the department said. "They are also likely to talk more and further increase the noise on a flight, as passengers would not be simply talking to the persons sitting next to them but can call whomever they like."

Some planes already have seat-back phones, but they are rarely used, the department said, adding that the concern "is not about individual calls, but rather the cumulative impact of allowing in-flight calls in close quarters."

At the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants to repeal the ban on cellphone use in flight, calling it restrictive and outdated. He also wants the airlines, not the government, to have final say on in-flight calling. He declined to comment Friday on the Transportation Department's notice.

In an Associated Press-GfK poll three months ago, 48 per cent of those surveyed opposed letting cellphones be used for voice calls while planes are in flight, while 19 per cent were in favour and 30 per cent were neutral. Among those who'd flown four or more times in the previous year, the rate of opposition soared to 78 per cent.

Delta Air Lines told the government last year that 64 per cent of its passengers indicated that the ability to make phone calls in flight would have a negative impact on their onboard experience.

The FCC has already received more than 1,200 public comments on its proposal, almost all of them opposed to lifting the ban.

"Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to be the involuntary audience of another passenger's telephone conversation," one commenter said Friday. "It is the equivalent of torture to be forced to listen to the incessant prattling of a seatmate, compounded by the impossibility of escape."

Among the most ardent opponents of lifting the ban are flight attendants, who worry that phone conversation will spark arguments between passengers and even acts of violence.

"Allowing passengers to use cellphones during commercial flights will add unacceptable risks to aviation security, compromise a flight attendant's ability to maintain order in an emergency, increase cabin noise and tension among passengers and interfere with crew members in the performance of their duties as first responders in the cabin," said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, responding to the department's proposal. The association represents nearly 60,000 flight attendants at 19 carriers.

Congress, inhabited by some of the nation's most frequent fliers, is also getting into the act. Lawmakers are pushing legislation to require transportation regulators to implement a ban on calls.

"When it comes to cellphones on planes, tap, don't talk," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said last week as the committee gave bipartisan approval to his bill.

The FCC ban was adopted in 1991 based on concern the calls from planes might interfere with cellular networks on the ground, but technological advances have resolved those worries. In 2005, the FCC cleared the way for airlines to begin offering Wi-Fi in flight.

Last October, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates safety, dropped its ban on the use of personal electronic devices such as tablets, music players and smartphones during takeoffs and landings as long as devices are set to airplane mode. Passengers can send email, text or surf the Internet when planes are above 10,000 feet in altitude.

The agency said it is no longer worried the devices will interfere with cockpit electronics. However, phone calls during all phases of flight are still prohibited under the FCC ban.

___

Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy

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