A day after setting off an uproar among travelers opposed to in-flight cellphone calls, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) backtracked, saying he personally isn't in favor of the proposal.
"We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes. I feel that way myself," chairman Tom Wheeler said in a Friday statement.
The role of the FCC, he added, is to advise if there is a safety issue with using cellphones to make calls on planes. He said there is "no technical reason to prohibit" them.
The decision to allow calls will ultimately rest with the airlines, Wheeler emphasized.
Wheeler perhaps underestimated the public outrage and media attention that the proposition would generate.
"It struck a nerve ... their phones have been ringing," said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group of the response the FCC has seen. "It's a lot of attention for an agency that usually doesn't get that much attention."
Experts warned that passengers would not welcome the prospect of listening to their neighbors chatter during flights.
Airlines expressed concern about the proposal, but said they would weigh the issue and survey their customers. Delta Air Lines was the only carrier to outright reject voice calls, regardless of what the FCC decides.
The union representing flight attendants said passengers rejected cellphone use and urged the FCC not to proceed.
A petition opposing the FCC's move posted on the White House website attracted nearly 1,700 signatures by Saturday morning.
Posted by a self-described frequent flier from Richmond, Va., it said: "Forcing (passengers) to listen to the inane, loud, private, personal conversations of a stranger is perhaps the worst idea the FCC has come up with to date ... I think the administration needs to nip this in the bud."
The rules banning in-flight use of cellphones have been in place for 22 years. A tentative agenda for the FCC's Dec. 12 meeting, posted Thursday, listed the proposed revision. It was the first the public heard of the change.