A good thing about the world’s busiest airport is that you can quickly ask people from all over the nation for feedback on insane ideas that might one day become reality.
And in a country as polarized as ours, it’s nice to have something that so many of us can agree would be an abomination: Allowing other airline passengers to talk on their cellphones in flight.
“Horrible idea,” said Tom Warner from Minnesota.
“Annoying,” said Jennifer Murrell from Texas.
We already have crying babies on planes, why add phone babblers? asked Traci Burton of Union City, Ga. “It’s your one little time to relax.”
No major U.S. airline has proposed ending one of the last call-free oases in the nation. And voice calls seem like a dying exercise in a Facebook messaging, Snapchatting, tweeting, texting and Instagram posting world.
But here’s what we all know: technology and the free market have a way of sneaking up on us and making both the beautiful and annoying possible and profitable.
So, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced a proposed rule in case U.S. airlines choose to add one more indignity to the claustrophobic Sardine Land of their aircraft.
If an airline allows in-flight mobile calls, the rule would require pre-ticket-purchase notifications of consumers that they may be “exposed” to overhearing someone else’s phone conversations.
The DOT warns about the potential for “passenger harm” and consumers being “unfairly surprised.”
“DOT believes that allowing voice calls, without providing adequate notice, would be an unfair and deceptive practice.”
Airlines, of course, want to serve their customers while profiting. Sometimes execution on those two themes doesn’t mesh well. Like when airlines find new ways to squish more seats on planes. (I’m betting carriers are inching closer to giving us full-contact, cheek-to-cheek seating arrangements, where each passenger is issued a slip of wax paper to separate themselves from their neighbors.)
I’m grateful that regulators want to protect us from irritating each other with cell calls.
But is it really the role of government to shelter us from all annoyances in our private business transactions? Shouldn’t that in part be the job of businesses that want to keep us as customers?
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission restricts using cell phones to make in-flight airline voice calls on cellular frequencies. It created the regulation in 1991 to prevent interference with wireless networks on the ground.
But now technology apparently can limit that interference. So, the FCC has long contemplated loosening its rules, though it has yet to actually do so.
Meanwhile, even the current government restrictions don’t cover voice calls connected via Wi-Fi. That leaves a loophole for voice calls in the future.
Carriers such as Delta say they have no intention of allowing such calls.
“Delta in the past has not been in favor of allowing voice calls on board, and that position has not changed,” a spokeswoman for the carrier emailed me.
She also cited a 2013 memo from Delta’s then-CEO which said “Our customer research and direct feedback tell us that our frequent flyers believe voice calls in the cabin would be a disruption to the travel experience” and that “Delta employees, particularly our in-flight crews, have told us definitively that they are not in favor of voice calls onboard.”
Oh, those phones
Of course, the airlines haven’t always felt that way. For years their aircraft seatbacks were outfitted with phones for the few passengers willing to pay big calling fees.
Even if the airlines change their minds back again, I wonder if many passengers will want to make calls knowing that the ears of strangers are only inches away.
I frequently see people thumbing away on their smart phones in restaurants, but I can’t remember the last time I witnessed someone making a call at a table.
Only about five percent of U.S. adults think it’s OK to use a cellphone in a meeting, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center. We have limits, probably based on propriety and self-preservation.
But all this stuff is up for interpretation. And views shift over time. About three-fourths of those surveyed are fine with using their cellphones on public transportation, according to Pew.
So while the airlines are holding fast so far, both Greyhound and Amtrak generally allow cell calls. (Though Amtrak offers a call-free Quiet Car on some trains.)
Kevin Bright, one of the folks I spoke with at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, told me he’s been on buses with phone callers around him.
“People,” he said, “don’t have any sense of themselves and how they affect other people.”
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