House Panel Approves Bill to Ban Phone Calls on Planes

The House Transportation Committee rebukes the FCC.

A plane comes in for a landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at dusk November 1, 2013. Earlier in the day a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle inside the airport, killing a security agent, creating scenes of chaos and causing widespread flight disruptions.  (National Journal)

The House Transportation Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to advance legislation that would ban cell-phone calls on planes. The bill is a sharp rebuke of a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to lift its current prohibition on in-flight calls.

"As anyone who flies knows, airplane cabins are noisy, crowded, and confined," said Rep. Bill Shuster, the committee chairman and author of the bill. "Subjecting passengers to potentially multiple, loud phone conversations in such close quarters would obviously diminish the comfort of any flight. It is just plain common sense that while on a plane with so many other people it will be in everyone's best interest to keep phone calls out of the cabin."

Shuster argued that it's fine to allow passengers to text and browse the Web on their phones, but he's opposed to calls that might disturb others.

Rep. Nick Rahall, the top Democrat on the committee, argued that in-flight phone use is a serious safety and comfort issue. He said that unlike an Amtrak train, it's not feasible to have a "quiet car" on a plane where people can avoid noisy conversations. Democratic Rep. Grace Napolitano noted she frequently has to fly back and forth to her district in California and said no one should be "bombarded with information you don't want to know."

The bill, H.R. 3676, would direct the Transportation Department to enact new regulations banning in-flight calls except for the flight crew or law-enforcement officers. Shuster argued that it's not the FCC's job to regulate calls on planes.

The FCC has a long-standing ban on in-flight calls based on technical concerns about interference with ground networks. In November, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced he would move ahead with a proposal to lift the ban, citing new technologies that can avoid the interference problems.

But Wheeler, who had just taken office a few weeks earlier, faced a swift public blowback from people afraid of getting stuck in a small space near an obnoxious conversation.

Wheeler clarified that he personally didn't want to have a phone call near him on a plane, but he argued that if the technical basis for the FCC's rules is gone, the agency should lift the ban. In December, the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to begin accepting public comments on the proposal. But even Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted to move ahead, expressed concern about the plan and indicated she may not support any final action to allow in-flight calls.

Ahead of the FCC vote, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said his department would explore enacting its own rules against in-flight calls.

Shuster's bill now moves to the full House for consideration.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander has introduced similar legislation in the upper chamber, but a spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee did not comment on whether the panel plans to take up the bill.