The proposed Federal Communications Commission rule would permit voice and date cellphone use once a plane reaches 10,000 feet.
The phones would still be restricted during takeoffs and landings.
The FCC has prohibited cellphone use on flights since 1991 because of concerns they would interfere with wireless networks on the ground. The Federal Aviation Administration recently said cellphone technology has advanced and so the phones posed no safety threat to aircraft.
The five FCC commissioners are to discuss the new idea when they meet Dec. 12. If three commissioners vote in favor of the proposal, the vote would be followed by a public comment period.
At least one commissioner's office was flooded Thursday with negative reaction to the idea, an aide told The Wall Street Journal.
New FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler said he supported the proposal.
"Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules," he said in a statement.
"I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers," he said.
Wheeler is a Democrat in a commission with three Democrats and two Republicans.
The proposal does not need congressional approval.
The Association of Flight Attendants, representing airline workers, called the proposal "not only unwelcome but also unsafe," saying cellphone use on flights would be "loud, divisive and possibly disruptive."
The FCC made a similar proposal in 2004 but dropped it three years later after opposition from flight attendants and other groups that argued ringing cellphones and people talking on them would be a nuisance, especially to people trying to sleep.
Some airlines in Asia and Europe already offer in-flight cell service, which involves relaying wireless signals between the plane and the ground.
Southwest Airlines Co., Delta Air Lines Inc. and Virgin America Inc. said they didn't like the proposal, while United Continental Holdings Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp. said they would consider it, the Journal said.
The FAA approved the use of all personal electronics below 10,000 feet last month, provided the devices remained on "airplane mode," meaning their wireless signals were disabled.