"We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes," Wheeler said. "I feel that way myself."
Wheeler declined to speak with The Associated Press. Any change would likely take at least a year to take effect.
Airline consultant Robert Mann says airlines have been using the FCC as an excuse not to allow cellphone use. He believes the agency wants to get itself out of the equation.
Airlines "ought to own up to what the real issues are," Mann says. "They're not technology. They're not regulatory. It's a business decision."
The Federal Aviation Administration recently lifted its ban on personal electronic devices, such as iPads and Kindles, under 10,000 feet. But the FCC's announcement that it would discuss its phone prohibition at its Dec. 12 meeting came as a surprise.
"I was not aware this was anywhere near the front burner. I didn't even know it was on the stove at the commission," says Harry Cole, a communications regulations lawyer at Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth in Arlington, Va.
Angela Giancarlo, a former FCC official and now a partner at law firm Mayer Brown, says the proposal was in the works before Wheeler became chairman. She suspects that the FCC expected the proposal would be greeted favorably because it could allow passengers to remain connected.
If phone calls are eventually allowed on planes — whether through Wi-Fi or traditional means — somebody still has to relay that signal to the ground. That provider, in partnership with the airline, would likely charge a fee. Cell carriers probably wouldn't profit off such calls.
Amtrak and many local commuter railways have created quiet cars for those who don't want to be trapped next to a loud talker. It's easy to envision airlines offering "quiet rows," although there will probably be an extra fee to sit there.
Ultimately, the FCC is going to make its decision based on safety, not public opinion, says Harold Feld, a senior vice president at advocacy group Public Knowledge.
"The decision on this is going to be made on the basis of real engineering facts and not about whether people enjoy being away from cellphones or not," Feld says.
U.S. airlines have tried in-flight calls before. Some passengers will remember bulky satellite phones that rested on the back of seats. Few travelers paid for the expensive calls. Airlines eventually ripped out the phones in favor of another distraction: seatback TVs.
With reports from AP Technology Writer Anick Jesdanun in New York and AP Business Writer Chris Rugaber in Washington.
Follow Scott Mayerowitz at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.
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