The long-blocked prospect for allowing voice calls on planes comes after the proliferation of cellphones and a change in leadership at the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC considered lifting the ban in 2004 but decided against making a change in 2007 for lack of enough technical information about whether phones could interfere with cockpit equipment. The commission also got thousands of comments opposed to the change.
Before joining the FCC, Wheeler was managing director at a venture-capital firm investing in Internet-protocol companies. He had been CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association and earlier was CEO of the National Cable Television Association.
Jeffrey Eisenach, an economist and FCC expert at the American Enterprise Institute, commended Wheeler for turning the agency away from "national nanny by dictating what counts as good manners at 30,000 feet."
"It has been clear for a decade that technology would permit safe use of cell phones on planes," Eisenach said. "Three cheers for Tom Wheeler for recognizing that the middle C in FCC does not stand for courtesy, and having faith in the ability of airlines and airline passengers to work these things out for themselves."
The proposal is drawing congressional scrutiny. A senior member of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., who has sponsored legislation prohibiting voice calls, said that even if the FCC allows calls, the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines will still have final say over whether calls are allowed.
"We are still in the beginning stages of this proposal," Petri said. "I know there are some who have concerns about the use of voice calls on flights, for instance."
The possible change comes as phones continue to proliferate. A survey released in May found that 99% of adult airline passengers carried at least one personal electronic device with them during the previous year, according to the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the industry group Consumer Electronics Association.
The most common gadgets used during flights are smartphones (28%), laptops (25%), tablets (23%), audio players (23%) and e-readers (13%), according to the survey. The national survey of 1,629 adults was conducted by land-line and cellphones in December 2012.
Voice calls have been allowed on dozens of airlines in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for years, aboard planes that have their own communications hot spots. The company OnAir, which provides mobile phone service on 55 airlines, urges the U.S. to lift its ban.
"Think about how you use your cellphone every day — e-mail, text messages, updating social media, reading newspapers and magazines, as well as answering calls and phoning people," said Ian Dawkins, CEO of OnAir. "It is important to recognize that the voice element is just another app."
Depending how airlines allow calls, Dawkins disputed whether they cause problems. Many customers use smartphones just for data, but flight attendants could also prohibit voice calls during quiet times, he said.
"Forget the hyperbole about the chaos in-flight cellphone usage could cause," Dawkins said. "An aircraft is a noisy environment, so the sound of a conversation doesn't carry very far."
As the FCC mulls the issue, airlines have taken a variety of positions.
JetBlue said its policy would respond to customers, with a majority of customers favoring the ban, said spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. But she said that after JetBlue introduced seat-back television, one of the "delightful consequences" was making the cabin quieter because passengers wore headphones.
"There might be a way to make everyone happy," Dervin said. "We might be able to accommodate all customer desires without interfering with anyone else's experience."
Southwest, which allows Wi-Fi connectivity throughout flights "across most of our fleet," is also monitoring the debate, said spokesman Brad Hawkins. But he said customers have been opposed to in-flight voice calls because they are "disruptive."
"We continue to monitor feedback on this topic from our customers and would consider it should the FCC make any rule change," Hawkins said.
Delta Air Lines found passengers strongly opposed to allowing voice calls during a survey last year.
Kirk Thornburg, Delta's managing director for aviation safety assurance, told the FAA that a survey of 1,462 customers found that 64% thought voice calls would have "a negative impact on flights."