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Most Middle East airlines and a few in Asia and Europe already allow voice calls on planes. Others allow texting.
Southwest Airlines on Wednesday started allowing passengers -- for $2 a day -- to use iPhones to send and receive text messages while on board through a satellite connection. The system will expand to Android phones early next year.
During the FCC hearing, Wheeler acknowledged that he doesn't want to hear other people's conversations on a plane and that he picks Amtrak's quiet car while traveling by train. He reiterated that this change is meant to clean up an outdated regulation, originally passed so air travelers wouldn't overwhelm cell phone towers on the ground.
"The DOT will address the behavioral issues. We're cutting away the technical underbrush," Wheeler said.
But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the FCC needs to look outside its four walls.
"We are not just technicians," she said. The agency is not absolved of the consequences of its decisions.
Rosenworcel voted to let the rule continue to the public comment phase but said she doesn't support it.
The reason: Life on planes would change.
"We could see our quiet time monetized and seating in the quiet section would come at a premium," Rosenworcel said. Flying today is already tough enough. "This commission does not need to add to that burden."
The nation's largest flight attendant union opposes allowing voice calls, saying cellphone use could lead to fights between passengers.
The Telecommunications Industry Association, the cell phone providers' trade and lobbying group, supports the change. The association notes that in countries that allow phone use, calls typically last one to two minutes and only a handful of people make them at the same time. Additionally, many of the calls involve checking voicemail, with no speaking by the passenger.
In both the House and the Senate lawmakers have introduced legislation ahead of the FCC meeting that would ban fliers from talking on cell phones midflight.
On Thursday, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the The Commercial Flight Courtesy Act. It would limit device use to texting and email if the FCC goes ahead with a rule change.
"When you stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies -- babbling about last night's love life, next week's schedule, arguments with spouses -- it's not hard to see why the FCC shouldn't allow cell phone conversations on airplanes," Alexander said.
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