EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 18, 2013

Column: From 30,000 feet up: Can you hear me now?

Dale McFeatters
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Last week, federal regulators began the process of removing the 22-year-old prohibition on in-flight cell phone calls now that all the technical objections have been satisfied.

Federal Communications Commission chairman said the current ban is “outdated and restrictive” even though he publicly admits to qualms about lifting the ban. The public also has mixed feelings about the ban.

An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday found that 48 percent of Americans oppose allowing the use of cell phones while aloft and just 19 percent support it. The opposition grows the more the respondents fly. Among those who take four or more flights a year, 78 percent want to keep the ban intact.

Passengers now freely use smart phones, notebooks and laptops, MP3 players and e-readers but these come with earpieces and don’t require the user to talk to the device.

The greatest objection voiced to cell phones was being trapped next to a passenger carrying on a loud and long-winded conversation. In today’s heavily booked flights there’s little chance of changing seats.

Some passengers worried about fistfights at 30,000 feet when a passenger unwilling subjected to an annoying conversation reaches the breaking point, a major reason the largest union of flight attendants objects to the change.

House Transportation Committee chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., plans to introduce a bill prohibiting the calls and Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., says he will reintroduce a bill he proposed several years ago when the issue first arose, the “Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace Act.”

Federal regulators are inclined to allow the airlines to make their policies on cell phone use. So far, according to AP, Delta is the only airline to state explicitly it won’t allow in-flight cell phone use. The others are “studying” the issue. But the pattern has been that when one airline takes away a passenger amenity the others soon follow.

And the airlines may find the prospect of charging passengers extra to use their cell phones irresistible.

Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.