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On the Line

Local legislators raise concerns about the FCC’s vote to allow cell phone calls on airplanes.

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Some fear fistfights in the friendly skies if passengers are allowed to make voice calls when their flights are above 10,000 feet.

But that's what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on in a meeting next week, reversing a 22-year ban on in-flight cell phone calls and texts. An approval would only mark the beginning of a long process to change the rule that will include a months-long period for public comment and likely political battles inside and outside the agency.

Backlash began as soon as the FCC unveiled the proposal in May. A petition against the move was immediately launched on the White House website, and consumer groups urged leaders to kill the proposal. Local congressmen joined the din of disapproval last week after the FCC announced it would continue with a vote on the matter.

In a letter last week to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator Michael Huerta, U.S. congressman Steve Cohen said the calls would be disruptive and potentially dangerous. On the safety issue, Cohen pointed to a statement from the Association of Flight Attendants that said cell phone calls could create even more chaos in emergency situations and could drown out important announcements.

"Allowing these calls would disrupt the right of consumers to enjoy the quiet comfort of their flight and potentially puts their safety at risk as well," Cohen said. "Simply put, the flying experience in the United States would be forever changed for the worse if voice calls are allowed on flights."

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said texting would be fine, but if the FCC votes to allow in-flight cell phone calls, he'll introduce legislation to block them. To back his plan, Alexander laid out a claustrophobic nightmare that ended with "fistfights" caused by passengers trapped next to strangers "yapping their innermost thoughts."

"Stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies from those who wander around shouting personal details into a microphone: babbling about last night's love life, bathroom plans, next week's schedule, orders to an assistant, arguments with spouses," Alexander said. "Imagine this noise while you travel, restrained by your seatbelt, unable to escape."

The rule that would allow in-flight calls comes thanks to new technology that can be installed on airplanes to connect a passenger's wireless device to a commercial cellular network. Many airlines already offer a similar service for paid access to in-flight wireless networks for internet use.

Experts say access to a voice network would work much the same. Consumers would pay (and possibly through the nose) for the privilege of an in-air voice call. But the technology would not provide the quality for long conversations, not in the beginning at least.

No matter what the FCC decides, the final decision to allow in-flight calls will rest with the airlines. They will decide whether or not to buy the equipment to make the calls possible and will manage the access if they do.

Delta Airlines said it will continue to ban in-flight phone calls no matter how the FCC votes. Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways, the other major passenger carriers at Memphis international Airport, have said publicly they'll wait and see what the FCC approves before making final decisions.

Scott Brockman, chief operating officer for the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said safety is the primary mission of both the FAA and his agency.

"We trust that any decision rendered by the FAA regarding the usage of electronic equipment in flight is done with that overriding focus in mind," Brockman said.

The discussion to allow voice calls should not be mistaken for the FAA's move in October, which allowed some functions of small portable electronic devices (tablets, e-readers, smart phones, etc.) during all phases of flight.

Reading books, playing games, watching movies, and taking photos are now allowed as long as the device is in airplane mode. However, the devices must be held or stowed in seatbacks on takeoff and landing.

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