by Bill Snyder

In-Flight Phone Calls Could Spark High-Altitude Brawls

Sep 30, 20143 mins
Consumer ElectronicsMobileSmall and Medium Business

Following a recent European ruling to let passengers access wireless networks throughout flights, a group of U.S. Congressmen told regulators that in-flight cellular calls are both annoying and dangerous.

Congress can’t be bothered to debate the latest U.S. war in the Middle East, and it isn’t sure it can pass a resolution to keep the federal government operating for the rest of the year. But 77 members of the House of Representatives are willing to express an opinion on the matter of airline passengers making cell phone calls at 35,000 feet — they’re against it.

The lawmakers, who wrote to a bevy of government agencies asking to keep the ban on high-altitude chatter in place, said that cell phone use might make planes less safe. Not less safe as in, “Oh my God, we’re going to crash,” but less safe as in “If you don’t put that damn cell phone away and let me sleep I’m going to punch you in the eye.”

From a filing the lawmakers wrote to the federal departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Justice and the FCC:

“The nature of an aircraft cabin would make it impossible for passengers to remove themselves from loud or unwanted conversations and disputes. Instead of focusing on required safety-related tasks, flight attendants may be forced to intervene in or mediate disputes between passengers on appropriate content and volume of voice calls, thus distracting their attention from other passengers and job responsibilities.”

I’m not actually sure this is an effective use of the Congress’s time, but I suspect it is right. The news is packed with reports of over-stressed passengers screaming and throwing water at each other over disputes about reclining seats, for example. Those fights can get pretty nasty and airlines have gone so far as to divert flights — thus inconveniencing hundreds of people— to get the combatants off the plane.

The use of mobile phones while on airliners has been banned for years, largely out of concerns that they could interfere with on-board navigation equipment. That’s pretty much been put to rest by researchers and the FAA, and potential conflict with ground-based communications towers is no longer a significant issue. Indecision about the direction to move forward is causing cognitive dissonance in Washington’s regulatory establishment.

For its part, the FCC is considering what it calls “a technical ruling” that would lift the ban, while leaving implementation up to the airlines. On the other hand, the Department of Transportation is considering a new ban on in-flight calls.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) ruled earlier this month that airline passengers will be allowed to keep their mobile devices on in full transmitting mode throughout their flights on European airliners, as long as the practice is also permitted by an airline’s individual operating rules. EASA gave airlines the final say.

I’m old enough to remember when airplanes had smoking sections. Of course that wasn’t much of a solution to the problem of second-hand smoke, but at least they tried. In those days there were also phone booths on nearly every corner and in the lobbies of hotels and movie theaters.

Maybe people who insist on yakking during flights could be segregated or forced to use a phone booth in the back of the plane. Of course, it would be much better if we could all be a bit civilized and work it out like adults, but given the record of the traveling public, I’m not optimistic.