FCC may allow cell phones on planes

(MoneyWatch) The Federal Aviation Administration recently cleared the way for airlines to begin allowing passengers to use portable electronic devices, so long as gadgets are set on "airplane mode," through all phases of flight. Some of the first to implement the change included Delta and JetBlue. Even cooler: Southwest Airlines now provides gate-to-gate Wi-Fi, allowing you to stay online throughout the flight.

But there are even bigger changes afoot.

In December, the FCC will consider a proposal to allow not just data, but also voice cell phone usage on planes. Specifically, they'd permit the use of cell phones above 10,000 feet (so you would not be able to stay on a call from gate to gate). This isn't without precedent: Foreign carriers like Air Emirates already allow it.

FCC chair Tom Wheeler had this to say in discussing the plan: "Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband. Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers."

The technical reason the FCC currently bans such calls is to avoid compromising ground-based cell networks, which aren't designed to quickly hand off calls between cell towers on planes traveling at 600 mph. If approved, the FCC would require airlines to install special cellular equipment on their planes to handle the voice traffic.

It's an interesting idea to allow voice calls on planes. But its unlikely to get much traction -- at least at first. Not only are airlines unlikely to invest in additional hardware to support these calls, but the idea of making voice calls doesn't appear to be that popular among consumers, who would face being trapped on a plane for hours, surrounded by cell phone conversations. The comments on the popular travel blog View from the Wing, for example, speak volumes about how unpopular such a move would be.

We're still months away from any real action on this front, but if the idea of flying among droves of people chattering on cell phones bothers you, it might be time to investigate Amtrak's "quiet cars."