Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

The Federal Communications Commission rushed on Friday to send Americans a message: “Don’t blame us!”

A day earlier, the commission announced that it would consider allowing cellphone use on flights. The news generated a flash flood of outrage, as consumers imagined having to listen to a fellow passenger’s call for the length of a transcontinental flight.

So Friday, the agency passed the buck to the airlines, as Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman, said the decision about allowing calls in-flight would ultimately be up to the companies.

Wheeler said in a statement that he, too, did not want anyone sitting next to him recounting the details of endless business meetings or giving a gum-snapping replay of “So I go ... and he, like, goes ... and, like, I go ...”

At its meeting Dec. 12, the commission will take the first step in its long bureaucratic process of changing its voluminous regulations. That would be to issue a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” which would lay out guidelines that, if adopted sometime next year after several weeks of public comment and perhaps months of internal agency wrangling, would allow airlines to set up systems that enable passengers to make in-flight calls.

Several airlines in Asia and Europe already use such systems, and U.S> carriers that have in-flight Wi-Fi systems also have the ability to transmit voice-over-Internet calls. No U.S. carriers have yet done so, however. Flight attendant unions vigorously oppose the proposal, saying it will endanger passenger safety.

Wheeler stressed that the commission can only rule on what is allowed, and there remain no technological reasons to prohibit the practice. But, he noted, it will be up to the airlines to decide whether to allow cellphone usage once a flight reaches 10,000 feet.

“If the commission adopts this proposal after the public has had the opportunity to comment, it will be only a technical advisory, an update to our rules,” Wheeler said Friday, in a statement roughly four times the length of that issued announcing the news Thursday. “There is nothing in the proposal that prohibits airlines from developing whatever in-flight phone usage policy they may wish.”

Whether airlines can resist the possibility of reaping additional revenue from a talk-while-you-fly partnership with a mobile carrier remains to be seen. Cellphone companies have generally been silent on the proposal so far, although the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group, said it welcomed the “pro-consumer, pro-innovation initiative.”