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Allow cellphones on planes? U.S. can't make up its mind

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WASHINGTON -- It looks like the U.S. government is more conflicted about cellphones on planes than most American travellers. Even as one federal agency considers allowing the calls, another now wants to make sure that doesn't happen.

Passengers -- particularly those who fly often -- oppose allowing calls in flight, polls show. In line with that sentiment, the Department of Transportation signalled in a notice posted online Friday it wants to retain the 23-year-old ban on the calls. But the notice comes just two months after the Federal Communications Commission voted to pursue lifting the ban.

The Transportation Department regulates aviation consumer issues. The FCC has responsibility over whether the use of cellphones in flight would interfere with cellular networks on the ground.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants to repeal the current ban, calling it restrictive and outdated.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 department's notice.

Echoing some travellers' concerns, the Transportation Department said it believes allowing passengers to make cellphone calls "may be harmful or injurious" to other passengers.

This is because "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 in place, but they are rarely used, it said.

The "concern is not about individual calls, but rather the cumulative impact of allowing in-flight calls in close quarters," the department said.

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 64 per cent of its passengers indicated 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 current ban are flight attendants, who worry that phone conversation will spark arguments between passengers and even acts of violence.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 A28

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