The U.S. Department of Transportation offers peace and quiet. The Federal Communications Commission offers inescapable torture.
The choice should be simple. But apparently it isn’t.
The issue is whether the ban on the use of cellphones to make in-flight calls should remain in place. While most travelers, especially frequent fliers and flight attendants, would like to keep the ban, the FCC still might call for lifting it.
The DOT, however, last week issued an opinion saying the ban should remain. In its notice, the DOT said it believes allowing passengers to make cellphone calls “may be harmful or injurious” to other passengers.
That’s one way of putting it. Another way might be to say that allowing passengers to make calls to friends and loved ones during a long-distance flight might compel some passengers to injure their seatmates.
The FCC has responsibility over whether the use of cellphones and other electronic devices would interfere with cellular networks on the ground or the airplanes’ electronics. The current ban on cellphone use was adopted in 1991 based on those concerns, but technological advances have solved any problems with interference. So, in 2005, the FCC cleared the way for airlines to begin offering Wi-Fi in flight.
The ban has been lifted on the use of personal electronic devices such as tablets, music players and smartphones to send email, to text or to surf the Internet during takeoffs and landings. The only restriction remaining is on the use of cellphones to make calls.
Fortunately the DOT regulates aviation consumer issues. And that, fundamentally, is what this is.
The primary concern is customer comfort. Who wants to be subjected to a seatmate talking incessantly on a cellphone all the way from New York to Los Angeles? And the clamor would be multiplied as more and more passengers added their voices to the chorus.
But flight attendants also insist that public safety is a real concern: “Allowing passengers to use cellphones during commercial flights will add unacceptable risks to aviation security, compromise a flight attendant’s ability to maintain order in an emergency, increase cabin noise and tension among passengers and interfere with crew members in the performance of their duties as first responders in the cabin,” said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 60,000 flight attendants at 19 carriers.
This whole dispute actually reflects a larger societal problem. Since when did people assume they had the right to talk on their cellphones whenever they felt like it?
It is a mistake to infer that it’s OK to talk on our cellphones anywhere just because we can, when, in fact, we should never talk on our cellphones when it might be disruptive to others. That means in restaurants, in theaters, in church or on a plane flight, to name a few of the places where phone calls are inappropriate.
Some members of Congress reportedly are working on legislation that would keep the phone ban in place. We wish them Godspeed.
One thing people should be guaranteed when they buy an airline ticket is a call-free cabin.