Our View: Continue voice call ban on airplanes

December 19, 2013 

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Getting ready to fly off for the holidays? Well, try not to let the ordeal get you down. You’ll likely have to squeeze into a cramped seat, compete for space in the overhead bin and pay extra for nearly every onboard perk – already including food and drink and soon to include the in-flight movie.

The last thing the government and airlines should consider is making air travel even more unpleasant by letting fellow passengers yap into their cellphones.

Yet here comes the Federal Communications Commission, proposing to let airlines decide whether to do just that.

Mercifully, one possible conclusion is to permit texting, emailing and Web surfing on mobile phones above 10,000 feet, but to continue the ban on voice conversations.

That is the right course – a compromise that gives travelers more freedom to communicate, but doesn’t create another reason to be irritated with your seatmate – as if the tight quarters weren’t enough.

It may be tempting to let the free market rule. Supporters of allowing voice calls say airlines could compete for customers by offering quiet rows, limiting the number of conversations at any one time or designating entirely phone-free flights. While that sounds good in principle, real life is different. Plane cabins are enclosed spaces and one loudmouth could ruin an flight faster than a crying baby.

The FCC is correct that its 22-year-old rules on mobile phones need to keep up with modern technology. It is technically feasible to let passengers use mobile phones without interfering with cellular towers on the ground, as airlines in Europe have demonstrated since the ban was lifted there in 2008. Just because the technology exists, however, doesn’t mean using it is wise.

Even before FCC commissioners voted 3-2 last week to start a 30-day public comment period on the proposed rule changes, some travelers, flight attendants and members of Congress loudly complained.

An Associated Press-GFK poll found that 48 percent of Americans oppose allowing voice calls while only 19 percent favor allowing them. Among frequent fliers, the opposition is even stronger – 78 percent against. Responding to their customers, the CEOs of the biggest airlines – Southwest and Delta – have said they don’t intend to allow voice calls, no matter what the government does.

Even if the FCC decides to proceed, it could be stopped in its tracks. Just before the commissioners acted, new Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that his department will consider using its authority to continue banning voice calls.

Also, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act (S 1811), which would prohibit cellphone voice calls on regularly scheduled domestic flights, but allow texting and other electronic communications.

“Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it’s certainly enshrined in common sense,” Alexander said in a statement. “This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: Nearly 2 million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts.”

Enough said.

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