Hello? Let's Talk About Our Dread of In-Flight Phone Calls

With federal regulators weighing unrestricted cell phone use aboard airplanes—now including calls—rarely has such a widely despised idea been given so much public debate. Members of Congress, airline executives, flight attendants, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and the traveling masses appear to live universally in fear of a long flight with an insufferably chatty seat mate.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said on Thursday that it is exploring a phone-call ban during flight, an announcement that came just as a measure to allow in-flight calls passed a preliminary Federal Communications Commission vote by a three-to-two margin. The positive vote on Thursday triggers a public-comment period before a second, final vote can be held.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday declared that the ban on calls can no longer stand on the fictional theory that wireless technology poses a flight-safety risk. While he shares the general unease, he told a House hearing that restrictions are best left to the airlines to impose. “I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else,” Wheeler said. “But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission.” (Wheeler served as head of a wireless trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, from 1992 to 2004.)

Even if the FCC were to reverse its ban on in-flight phone calls, airlines would need to equip their planes with equipment to transmit phone signals to the ground. Beyond that expense, many airlines would be leery of angering customers and taking the risk that phone calls in flight could cost them business.

Delta Air Lines has already said it won’t allow calls. Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said on Thursday in a speech in New York that 60 percent of passengers oppose such calls and he doesn’t favor a change. The largest U.S. flight attendants’ union also vowed a fight against phone calls. “In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating risks that are far too great,” said Veda Shook of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Atop all that opposition, the general public is hardly clamoring to chat while flying. An Associated Press poll this month of 1,367 people found that 59 percent of Americans who took more than one flight in the past year oppose in-flight calls—a number that grows to 78 percent when it counts those who have taken at least four flights.

Representative Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced a bill with Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, earlier this week that would outlaw in-flight calls. “Being able to log-on to text and e-mail is useful for passengers, but it’s just unnecessary to have potentially dozens of phone conversations occurring during a flight,” says Shuster. ”When it comes to mobile devices on planes: Tap, don’t talk.”

Amid all the hullabaloo in America, the European Aviation Safety Agency ruled last month that travelers on EU airlines could use their devices in flight—for talking, too. In a statement following a similar action by the European Commission, the agency said it “recognizes the wide proliferation of personal electronic devices and the wish of the traveling public to use them everywhere.” Of course, there’s a big caveat in Europe as well: Airlines will get to set policy on phone calls for themselves.

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