A passenger checks her cellphone before a flight in Boston in October 2013. The Transportation Department is asking passengers how they feel about calls in-flight, as the Federal Communications Commission considers lifting its prohibition against cellular service. / Matt Slocum, AP
WASHINGTON â?? The Transportation Department asked Friday for public comment about whether to allow calls on planes in case another agency lifts its longtime ban on in-flight cellular service.
The 22-page transportation proposal, which will be published Monday in the Federal Register, comes at the same time the Federal Communications Commission is collecting comment about lifting the 1991 ban.
If the FCC lifts its ban, DOT potentially could adopt its own prohibition or create restrictions such as not allowing calls at night. Neither agency has any timetable for taking action.
More than 1,200 comments so far to the FCC are almost universally opposed to allowing calls, although hundreds of people would allow silent text and data services.
The Transportation Department is asking for comments about whether voice calls would be unfair to consumers or inconsistent with safe transportation.
"While the department does not oppose the use of cellphones and other mobile devices for mobile wireless data services, such as sending and receiving text messages and e-mail, there is concern that the pervasiveness of in-flight voice calls could create an oppressive environment for passengers, especially on long-haul flights," the department said.
The FCC agreed in December to reconsider its prohibition because the original concern was that cellphones on planes would interfere with ground-based communications. This is no longer a problem because planes can carry their own cell towers now.
But the issue remains contentious. A December poll of 2,692 registered voters found that 59% of Americans oppose the use of cellphones on planes, while 30% don't object, according to the Quinnipiac Polling Institute.
The same month, an Associated Press-GfK poll of 1,367 adults found that 48% of Americans oppose allowing voice calls during flights, while 19% support calls. Among frequent fliers, 78% oppose voice calls on planes, the poll found.
A House committee voted this month to ban voice calls on planes but allow cellular texts and data. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
The Transportation Department is studying the issue because the Federal Aviation Administration, part of the agency, already certifies whether other portable electronic devices â?? games, e-readers, music players â?? interfere with a plane's communications or navigational equipment and found they don't.
The FAA has the power to regulate electronics under the law for aviation safety, and the department now wants to explore through the comment period whether the same law should govern voice calls. The FAA also would have to determine whether calls should be allowed only above 10,000 feet, after it decided in October to allow passengers to use other gadgets from gate to gate on approved planes.
Foreign airlines have allowed voice calls for years. They say few passengers actually make calls and that calls average less than 2 minutes each. Cellular services and electronics companies are urging the FCC to lift the ban.
Virgin Atlantic Airways, which already allows calls overseas through AeroMobile, urged the FCC to allow calls in the USA.
Boeing Co. told the FCC that European testing has proved that phones are safe for use in flight without interfering with planes.
The Telecommunications Industry Association told the FCC it "looks forward to working with the commission as it seeks to remove outdated regulatory barriers for access to innovative devices and services."
The Transportation Department is seeking details about how much passengers use cellphones on foreign flights and whether airlines have received complaints. This is part of how the department will gauge whether allowing calls is an unfair practice, which was the standard used to ban smoking on flights.
"In this instance, the department feels that the potentially harmful effect to consumers is discomfort," the department said.
The department noted that it already received 90 comments, with flight attendants opposed to allowing calls. Delta, JetBlue and United airlines each has indicated they will keep the ban on calls in place, according to the department.
The FCC is collecting comments through March 17. The DOT will collect comments until March 22.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: DOT asks public whether to allow calls on planes