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It looks like in-flight cell phone calls will be the latest addition to the long list of things banned on airline flights in America. However, unlike most such bans, the rationale for this one is not “safety” or “terrorism prevention,” but instead is based on the idea that being trapped in a narrow metal tube listening to other passengers talk on their cell phones is annoying enough to require actual laws against it.

Of course, the ban on in-flight cell phone use is nothing new; for years, the FCC banned in-flight cell phone calls out of fear that they'd overwhelm ground-based cell-phone capacity. (In the early days of the technology, that might have been a genuine concern.)

But last December, the FCC said that this justification for banning in-flight cellular use was no longer necessary – though it did not go so far as to lift the ban. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, responded almost immediately by announcing his intention to propose a bill banning in-flight cell phone chats.

Quick & quiet

The committee voted in favor of the bill the following February. Shuster said at the time that he supported the use of cell phones for Internet access or sending and receiving text messages, but not for voice chat: “As anyone who flies knows, airplane cabins are noisy, crowded and confined … Most passengers would like their flights to go by as quickly and quietly as possible.”

After the February vote, the committee's bill went before the full House of Representatives.

Yet this probably upcoming ban is coming not from Congress but from the Department of Transportation.

The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that DOT General Counsel Kathryn Thomson gave a speech to the International Aviation Club in D.C. and, according to witnesses, said that the DOT plans to take “the next step” in ensuring a formal ban on in-flight voice calling.

A DOT spokeswoman later confirmed that the agency is preparing “a notice of proposed rulemaking” to come out this December.

The airlines, for their part, say the DOT is overstepping ts authority, and the companies themselves should decide whether or not to offer in-flight cell phone service. Many airlines already have their own anti-calling policies, though others might (for example) want to experiment with dividing their planes into different sections – a no-phone quiet zone over here, and a noisy phones-allowed section over there – rather than have any and all options legally forbidden.

Whether you are allowed to make cell phone calls or not, however, remember to make sure your phone battery is fully charged before you try boarding a plane, or else the TSA will think you're smuggling a bomb.


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