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U.S. House panel advances bill banning cellphone calls on planes

By Eric Beech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Responding to a public outcry after U.S. regulators said they would consider allowing passengers to make cellphone calls during flights, lawmakers on a House of Representatives panel on Tuesday overwhelmingly advanced a bill to ban such calls.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on a voice vote with no opposition, sent the bill to the full House. It was unclear when it would be considered there. Similar legislation has been introduced by a Senate committee.

The bills came in response to a move by the Federal Communications Commission to consider lifting the prohibition on in-flight calls within the United States, because they no longer pose a hazard to aviation electronics.

"The prospect of sitting among dozens of people all talking on their cellphones in a confined space raises serious safety, if not comfort, considerations especially at a time when passengers face less legroom, higher fees and pricey flights," said Representative Nick Rahall, the committee's top Democrat.

There is little controversy over allowing passengers to use their phones or other devices to text, email or surf the Internet while flying, but the move to possibly allow phone conversations went too far for some.

"A chill went through the flying public and flight attendants nationwide" when the FCC voted to consider lifting the call ban, Rahall of West Virginia said.

Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, noted a Quinnipiac University survey in December that found 59 percent of voters oppose allowing calls on flights, with 30 percent in favor.

"This bill is simple. When it comes to cell phones on planes, tap, don't talk," Shuster said.

The FCC's proposal would leave it up to the airlines to decide whether to permit the calls, but the bills in Congress would provide no such discretion. The bills include exceptions for flight crews and federal air marshals.

After the FCC uproar U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also stepped in and said his department would consider banning in-flight calls.

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