When the U.S. Department of Transportation asked travelers to comment on whether they favored cellphone calls on airplanes, the agency got an earful.
With a deadline next Wednesday for interested parties to respond, the DOT has received more than 1,600 comments so far, and almost all say “No way!”
“When crammed in a tin can with 200 other people, I don't want conversations going with 200 more. Air travel is degrading enough without having to bear with another annoyance,” one commenter told the government.
Said another: “I take it that you have heard of road rage. If cell phones are allowed on airline flights it will be much more of a problem. I for one, if someone anywhere near me was babbling away, would most likely take the phone away and crush it.”
“Are you completely insane?” one commenter demanded of the government. “There will be violent fights, people will break other people’s phones, etc. The DOT is completely moronic to even consider this.”
One exception was a commenter who cited a recent flight that was diverted to another airport. An Alzheimer’s patient aboard would have benefited if she could have contacted her family, the commenter said. “A cell call would have saved this poor lady a lot of stress and her family a lot of concern.”
Historically, government regulators have restricted the use of electronics on board airplanes, particularly as the airplane was flying below 10,000 feet on departure or arrival. The knock was that they might interfere with the airplane’s electronics such as navigational equipment.
But with scant proof that music players, tablets and other personal electronics actually did cause problems, the Federal Aviation Administration last October decided to allow the use of most devices from gate to gate. Even so, it kept the ban on use of cellphones during flight.
With technology available for airplanes to handle incoming and outgoing calls, the Federal Communications Commission raised the question in late 2013 whether the ban on in-flight calls should be lifted.
By a 3-2 vote, the FCC in December proposed a rule to allow cellphone use on airplanes, with the understanding that it was up to each airline to decide whether to permit its passengers to do so.
In February, the DOT followed up the FCC action by proposing a ban on in-flight phone calls.
DOT said that “under the department’s aviation consumer protection authority, we are seeking comment on whether voice calls on aircraft constitute an unfair practice to consumers … and/or are inconsistent with adequate air transportation … and if so whether such calls should be banned or restricted (e.g., not allow voice calls at night time).”
While many responses said it would be OK to allow texting, most said voice calls would introduce more unpleasantness into an experience that is already not very tolerable.
“Most airlines are squeezing more seats into their planes making for tight quarters, especially when every seat is usually full. There is enough stress and tension aboard a crowded aircraft as it is,” one writer stated.
“Why add a potentially volatile practice that can only increase the incidence of irritation and scorn of passengers around those on a call as well as making flight attendants' jobs more difficult. I strongly recommend that the rules against in-flight calls NOT be changed.”
A commenter named Lee Ann called in-flight phone calls her “worst nightmare,” and ended her comment to the DOT with: “No, no, no, no, no, no…...NO.”
Kevin Mitchell, Business Travel Coalition chairman, said his membership of business travelers is thinking along the lines of the general public.
“They’re adamantly opposed to it, for a variety of reasons. It’s largely because you’re in a confined space where you have been accustomed to have the ability to sleep, read, think, to concentrate. This would really take that away,” Mitchell said.
“However, I think it’s a free-market decision. … The airlines are going to do what consumers tell them to do in this regard, and I really don’t think they’re going to violate the needs and desires of their best customers,” he said.
But he can see one option that could benefit business travelers — the ability to listen to a phone call during a flight. Business people often need to listen to conference calls or important meetings while they’re in the air, Mitchell said, and it might make sense to ban talking but allow listening if that were possible.
George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, said he opposes phone calls on airplanes, and respondents to a survey also opposed such calls.
“It’s not just that cellphone calls can be annoying even on the ground. People talk really loudly on cellphones. Imagine what it’s going to be like with all the noise on the plane, with the jet engines and the air rushing past the fuselage. People are going to be screaming into their phones,” Hobica said.
“It would just lead to fisticuffs, fights and ill will. I’m hoping no airline will allow this,” Hobica said.
Many airlines may ban in-flight calls even if the DOT and FAA allow them. Right after the FCC proposed its rule in December, Delta Air Lines Inc. chief executive Richard Anderson made his airline’s position clear.
“Delta will not allow cellular calls or Internet-based voice communications onboard Delta or Delta Connection flights,” Anderson told employees in a companywide message.
Southwest Airlines Co. spokesman Brad Hawkins said his carrier also does not intend to allow cellphone usage for voice communication in flight.
“We have heard from our employees and customers that in-flight voice communication could disrupt comfort, safety and security in the cabin,” Hawkins said. “Although the issue is still being discussed among several regulatory agencies, we have no plans to make changes to our voice communication policies.”
American Airlines Inc., which currently blocks “voice over Internet protocol” calls on computers using its airplanes’ Wi-Fi, won’t say whether it would ban in-flight cellphone calls.
“We understand that this is an important issue to many of our customers, and we will certainly keep the wishes of our customers in mind should the rules governing cellphone use shift to individual airlines,” spokesman Matt Miller said.
United Airlines said Wednesday that “We’re evaluating the views of our customers and crew members on inflight calling, and at this time we don’t intend to permit use of cellphones.”
Congress may take the issue out of the hands of the DOT and the airlines. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Feb. 11 approved a bill that would ban in-flight voice calls on mobile wireless devices, but would allow texting. The author is the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.
“This bill is simple. When it comes to cellphones on planes, tap, don’t talk,” Shuster said in a Feb. 11 statement.
“Airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined. In our day-to-day lives, when we find someone’s cellphone call to be too loud, too close, or too personal, we can just walk away. But at 30,000 feet, there’s nowhere else for an airline passenger to go,” Shuster stated.
©2014 The Dallas Morning News