In-flight cell call ban advances in Congress

By , IDG News Service |  Government, legislation

A bill that would stifle in-flight cellular calls despite emerging technologies that finally make them feasible is headed for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The proposed Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace (HANG UP) Act was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a voice vote Thursday. It would make permanent the long-standing ban on such calls by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission. The next stop for the bill will be the full House, after which companion legislation would also have to be passed by the Senate and signed by President George W. Bush. A companion measure has been introduced as part of an FAA reauthorization measure in the Senate.

Cellular calls in flight have long been illegal because of concerns about interference with both aviation systems on board and cellular networks on the ground. But some regions of the world are now moving ahead with in-flight calling systems. Earlier this year, Emirates Airline began offering an in-flight cellular service, and the European Union recently opened the door for countries to hand out licenses for offering such services.

But Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon who co-sponsored the HANG UP Act, is worried about a creep toward in-flight calls over the U.S.

"Polls show the public overwhelmingly doesn't want to be subjected to people talking on their cell phones on increasingly over-packed airplanes. However, with Internet access just around the corner on U.S. flights, it won't be long before the ban on voice communications on in-flight planes is lifted," DeFazio said in a statement. Cash-strapped airlines could end up charging some passengers to use their phones while charging others to sit in a phone-free section of the plane, he said.

American Airlines recently carried out a soft launch of a Wi-Fi in-flight broadband service from Aircell called Gogo, and Virgin America plans to offer the same service by the end of this year. American said it doesn't plan to allow voice calls over Gogo and that Aircell will use technical means to prevent them.

The bill, designated H.R. 5788, wouldn't ban Internet access, e-mail or text-messaging.

In a Harris Interactive survey earlier this year commissioned by Yahoo's Connected Life Americas division, 74 percent of respondents said cell phone use on airplanes should be restricted to silent features. There were 2,088 adults in the U.S. surveyed.

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