WSJ.com reported that the U.S. government is apparently getting closer to formally banning cellphone calls on airplanes while airlines are pressing that the decision be left to them.

According to the article, the Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to pursue the next step in what could lead to a formal ban on in-flight calls, the agency’s general counsel Kathryn Thomson, said in a speech last week at the International Aviation Club in Washington, according to people present. A spokeswoman confirmed that the DOT is developing “a notice of proposed rulemaking” for publication in December. “At this point, there is no final determination” as to what the notice or the final rule will say, said another spokeswoman. Ms. Thomson’s comments are the first sign the agency is proceeding with a formal rule, airline industry officials said.

Regulators are focused primarily on the disruptive effects of voice calls rather than texting or other data use, having last year loosened restrictions that now allow airline passengers to use electronic devices for these purposes from gate to gate.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission proposed overturning technical rules barring in-flight cellphone use that have been in place for more than two decades. Those rules were designed to prevent interference with ground-based cellular networks, but the FCC said it believed that is no longer a concern. The FCC has yet to issue a formal rule change, but any Transportation Department rule barring voice calls would take precedence.

In February, the DOT requested public and industry comments on cellphone use. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx had already flagged the agency’s opposition to in-flight calls and said he believes passengers and flight-crew members are overwhelmingly against in-flight phone use.

Airlines contend the Transportation Department is overstepping its authority, and should let carriers decide whether to offer cellphone service, which would require some technology investment, as a way to differentiate themselves.

“Airlines aren’t clamoring to allow mobile-phone use during flight, and some have already said they’d prohibit it on their own flights,” said Jeffrey Shane, general counsel for the International Air Transport Association, and a former senior Transportation Department policy maker. But Mr. Shane said some carriers may want to explore passenger-friendly ways to introduce calls, such as in-flight phone booths or quiet zones.

The Transportation Department has said it would pursue any ban of in-flight calls on consumer-protection grounds, under sections of transportation law that give it the authority to ensure airlines provide “safe and adequate” service and to protect fliers from “unfair and deceptive practices” by airlines. The department successfully used these laws to make a rule that fines airlines for keeping fliers on an airplane parked on a tarmac for several hours.

Wireless-industry groups such as the Telecommunications Industry Association also have lobbied the Transportation Department, arguing that there is no need for the agency to weigh in.

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Wayne Thorp
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is editor of Computerized Investing and a vice president and the senior financial analyst at The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII). He is also the program manager for AAII's Stock Investor Pro fundamental stock screening and research database program and is on the advisory boards of AAII's Stock Superstars Report and Dividend Investing newsletters. He holds the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation and is a 1997 honors graduate of DePaul University in Chicago. Wayne's interests include stock screening, technical analysis and charting, social media and tech gadgets. However, in the summer he'd prefer to be hip-deep in northern Michigan's Manistee River fly-fishing for rainbow trout.

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