Feds: If Airlines Allow Voice Calls, They Should Tell You Upfront


The US Department of Transportation this week announced a proposal that would require airlines to inform customers prior to purchase if their flight allowed passengers to make voice calls with their mobile devices.

The FCC's existing rules prohibit people from using certain frequencies to place voice calls from mobile devices on planes. Though it moved to change those rules in 2013, cellular phone calls are still banned on airplanes, hence why we all put our devices into "airplane mode" before take-off.

Wi-Fi, however, is more and more common on domestic flights, and as the DOT notes, the FCC's rules do not ban Wi-Fi calling or "other means by which it may become possible to make voice calls." So, should an airline permit it, you might one day be sitting next to a chatty passenger who talks to their kid or holds a conference call on Skype for four hours. No airlines currently permit that (Delta said no way three years ago), but the DOT wants to get out ahead of the issue, and make sure that passengers are aware if their flight allows voice calls.

Allowing voice calls without providing adequate notice "would be an unfair and deceptive practice," according to the DOT, which has been conducting its own investigation into the matter since 2014.

"Consumers deserve to have clear and accurate information about whether an airline permits voice calls before they purchase a ticket and board the aircraft," US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "Today's proposal will ensure that air travelers are not unwillingly exposed to voice calls, as many of them are troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight."

The agency is seeking comment on whether disclosure is sufficient or if it should ban voice calls altogether. Members of the public can head here to comment.

The DOT notes that some international airlines already allow for voice calls, largely without incident. Carriers like Emirates and Virgin Atlantic tell the agency that "voice calls are rarely placed, and are of short duration because they are quite expensive."

But, of course, it only takes one passenger to ruin a flight. Lower prices and better technology could eventually lead to "a higher prevalence of voice calls and a greater risk of passenger harm," the DOT said.

The Business Travel Coalition suggested that DOT permit listen-only calls so that travelers could hear things like conference calls. In-flight Wi-Fi provider Gogo also said voice calls should be banned on commercial flights, but not private aircraft or charter flights.

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