The Federal Communications Commission is considering allowing cellular service on flights, which service providers and manufacturers say travelers want. / Matt Slocum AP
Companies eager to provide cellular service aboard planes are urging the Federal Communications Commission to allow it first on international flights so that airlines and travelers can see how it works.
As the service expands to domestic flights, companies such as plane manufacturer Boeing, electronics maker Panasonic and service provider AeroMobile service provider say that airlines will be able to decide whether to allow calls in addition to silent texting and Internet access.
"Stated simply, this proceeding is about choice, not voice," Panasonic lawyers Mark DeFazio and Carlos Nalda told the FCC.
The FCC has no schedule for making a decision. But Chairman Tom Wheeler and corporate advocates want one before the end of the year.
The FCC agreed in December to collect comment about lifting its 1991 ban on cellular service because the rationale no longer exists for concerns about phones jamming ground stations. Aircraft now carry essentially their own cell towers.
But opposition among travelers remains fierce. The corporate comments followed a flood of emotional responses from more than 1,400 travelers who argued that calls would make flights even more unpleasant. Loud talking, getting into fights and ignoring safety lectures were among the passenger concerns.
The Transportation Department also got 1,774 comments as it prepares to regulate the service if the FCC allows it.
Flight crews, for example, strongly opposed the FCC proposal as a safety threat and potential benefit to terrorists.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 60,000 members, said "unacceptable risks to U.S. national security will flow from a decision to provide passengers, including terrorists, airborne access to mobile broadband services."
The flight attendants warned that phones could be used to monitor crew members, coordinate an attack or remotely detonate a bomb.
The flight attendants were joined by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association with 25,000 members, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers with 180,000 airline manufacturing workers, and the Transport Workers Union of America with 200,000 members.
The Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing 50,000 pilots, acknowledged that the cellular service shouldn't interfere with cockpit navigation and communications equipment.
But pilots remain opposed because passengers using phones could make it harder for flight attendants to do their jobs and could lead to adversarial interactions with passengers.
"The overall cabin atmosphere may more frequently deteriorate to unacceptable levels, perhaps even to the point of adversely affecting and even jeopardizing the safety of all occupants," Capt. Sean Cassidy, the union's national safety coordinator, told the FCC.
But the industry group Airlines for America, which represents the largest carriers, said airlines rather than the government are in the best position to deal with consumer demand or opposition to specific services.
Panasonic, which described itself as the leader in in-flight entertainment and communication, said cellular service would simply expand and offer more choices than Wi-Fi already widely available on planes.
AeroMobile, which provides cell service on airlines in Europe and the Middle East, suggested that the FCC start allowing the service on international flights because 20% of travelers already using the service on flights outside the USA are domestic subscribers.
Starting with international flights will mean travelers are most familiar with it on planes that provide it, so regulators can apply any lessons learned before expanding to domestic flights, according to AeroMobile.
"The commission should bring these benefits to consumers and their wireless carriers," AeroMobile lawyers Ann-Marie Mullan and Nalda wrote the FCC.
With no fear of technical problems, service providers and Boeing each said the decision about allowing calls will rest with the Transportation Department.
"Voice capability can be separately enabled from the 'quiet data' uses such as web browsing and texting that are widely supported, and Boeing believes that those airlines that have expressed interest in offering voice service should be permitted to experiment," Boeing lawyers Audrey Allison and Bruce Olcott wrote the FCC.
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