U.S. government considers allowing phone calls on flights

Under a proposed rule, it could become a lot more clear whether or not you can use your cellphone to make voice calls on flights in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said Thursday it wants to require airlines and ticket agents to tell customers in advance if the airline on which they're flying will let passengers talk on their phones. And while the DOT is seeking comments on the proposed rule, it also wants consumers to weigh in on if it should ban voice calls altogether on flights in the U.S.

The move is a sign the federal government is considering allowing voice calls on flights — but first it wants to hear from what certainly will be a massive number of people who want to share their opinions on the matter.

Right now, Federal Communications Commission rules don’t allow for people to make voice calls using their cellphones, because those rules ban the use of mobile devices on certain radio frequencies. But those rules don’t cover the use of Wi-Fi to make calls — something many smartphones, including iPhones and some Android devices, now allow. Most major airlines now offer in-flight Wi-Fi, whether for free or paid use.

In a news release, the DOT said not providing advance notice of voice-call policies “would be an unfair and deceptive practice.” The DOT cited response to a 2014 call for comment on a proposed rule regarding the use of wireless devices to make voice calls on airplanes, saying “a substantial majority” of comments were opposed to allowing voice calls because they could be “disturbing, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin.”

A higher number of calls and “a greater risk of passenger harm” could be seen in coming years as the cost to make a call goes down and the quality of calls made from cellphones goes up, the DOT said.

“Consumers deserve to have clear and accurate information about whether an airline permits voice calls before they purchase a ticket and board the aircraft,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a news release. “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 cellphones in flight.”

The DOT would only require airlines to let a passenger know in advance if the airline does allow voice calls on its flights.

Here's how to comment on the proposed rule: Go to http://www.regulations.gov and enter docket number DOT-OST-2014-0002. Comments must be received within 60 days of the date the notice is published in the Federal Register.