updated 04:18 pm EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
Ban focuses on disruptive nature of phone calls rather than technical issues
Not a year after some usage limitations on airplanes were lifted for smartphones and tablets comes news that the United States government is looking to issue a permanent ban on in-flight voice calls. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is reportedly developing a "notice of proposed rulemaking," according to the Wall Street Journal, that could bring an end to cellphone calls onboard planes before they start.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started an inquiry in November 2013 into bringing an end to the limitations of data usage on airplanes. The FCC was considering the idea that technology advances in devices no longer posed a risk to safe plan operation. In December, a vote was passed to consider new rules for inflight communications.
However, the FCC recognized that a change in policy as a result of the comments wouldn't overturn a full ban on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or DOT rules. At the time, the agency added that the DOT was looking into its own process of banning in-flight calls (which would not void the loosened rules on other kinds of smartphone usage). Comments on proposed rules were due by February 14.
The FAA made an announcement the month before that passengers could use cellular devices during all phases of flight, with some limitations still in place. Devices would still need to disable cellular service or be in airplane mode, unless the flight offered Wi-Fi access. Bluetooth would be allowed, but devices needed to be held or put into the seat pocket during takeoff and landing. The change allowed device usage from gate to gate, but still didn't overturn the FCC rules barring voice calls.
The DOT doesn't appear to be concerned with data or text usage with smart devices, but rather how disruptive a phone call can be to staff and passengers. A spokeswoman for DOT said the rulemaking notice to be released in December would outline the ban for receiving or making calls. The entity would then make a ruling after comments were collected in February. The DOT sought comments earlier in the year, but Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the agency would consider a ban in December 2013.
It appears that airlines believe they should have the final say in allowing calls, not the Department of Transportation. Airlines could use phone calls as a way to promote themselves against competition. Any allowance would most likely require the installation of additional technology to route signals from airliners back to carriers as the FCC pointed out. Some international flights already allow phone calls, but can turn the service off or require shutdown before entering United States airspace.
It's possible that there could be a gap between allowing voice calls and a ban taking effect. The FCC could change its policy on calls before the DOT institutes a ban. Rules from the FCC are currently upholding the voice call ban, but anything from the DOT would override the FCC's policy. Voice calls policy isn't something that the FCC is looking at based on convenience, but rather just if a ban is still required on a technical level. Airlines would have to seek permission to allow them from the FAA and DOT if the rules change before a ban is issued.