US regulators girded for a vote Thursday which could allow in-flight phone calls, as debate heated up in Congress and elsewhere on the issue.
Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, in comments prepared for a congressional hearing Thursday morning, defended his agency's moves on reforming what he called "an outdated rule" banning in-flight calls.
"If the basis for the rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid," Wheeler said.
"I understand the consternation caused by the thought of your onboard seatmate disturbing the flight making phone calls. I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function."
Wheeler and other FCC commissioners were set to appear at the morning hearing in the House of Representatives, and vote later in the day on the rule change.
If the FCC adopts the plan, it would formally open up the provisional rule for public comment for several months. The panel could then vote on a final rule, still subject to public review.
And even if the FCC rule becomes final, it would still allow airlines to decide how to implement any calling plan, which would likely be limited to a handful of people on a plane at any given time.
Still, a movement by lawmakers to hang up the plan was gathering momentum.
Sixty members of Congress had signed a letter to the FCC urging the regulatory agency to say no to voice calls even if other wireless services are permitted.
"We are in support of new options for airline passengers to safely use wireless data for non-voice services such as text messaging, email, and Internet browsing; but we are adamantly opposed to the use of cellular voice services during flights," said the letter released by Representative Peter DeFazio.
Congressman Dave Joyce also voiced objections.
?Airline passengers holding cell phone conversations may not only cause an unpleasant travel environment, but could potentially pose safety risks, as someone on a cell phone is more likely to miss important crewmember instructions," Joyce said in a statement.
"I'm all for the use of emails, text messages, or Internet browsing, but the public's traveling environment and safety will improve with the ban of phone conversations.?
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found Americans opposed the use of phones on planes by a margin of 59 to 30 percent. Other polls have shown similar sentiment.
??Buckle up; hang up and shut up on airplanes,? chatter-weary American voters say,? said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Ian Dawkins, chief executive of the Swiss-based in-flight carrier OnAir, said experience outside the United States suggests the fears are unfounded.
"We have approvals in 100 countries, we have major airlines flying to the US every day and people on those flights, including US citizens, can use their devices right up to the US border," Dawkins told AFP.
Dawkins said that during flights where calling is allowed, most passengers use common courtesy. He added that most airlines switch off voice calling during nighttime hours, and allow crews to maintain a cutoff switch for security messages.
"In the US, this has become an emotional issue because a small percentage of the population has been very vocal," he said,
He added that outside the US, most passengers find the service useful for both business and personal uses, and most airlines opt in, with some limits. OnAir has been operating since 2007 and claims it is used by 380,000 passengers.
"A very small percentage of people use voice,"Dawkins said. "And the average call time is about two minutes."
The news rules also won endorsement from a recent Washington Post editorial.
"Now that carriers in Europe and Asia have shown it can be done safely, the government's telecommunications regulator has no sound reason to keep its restrictions. Its rules are outdated, and they should go," the Post wrote.
"We hope that carriers explore their options to bring air travel into the 21st century, with all its pluses and minuses."