ATW Editor's Blog

Airlines should make the call on inflight phone calls

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To understand how US Congress works these days, examine its attitude towards the use of cellular phone use during flight. In a show of rare bipartisan solidarity, the US House of Representatives’ transport committee has unanimously passed a bill that would make it illegal for passengers to use their phones during US airline flights.

Yet less than a year ago, Congress remained at its more typical partisan loggerheads under its budget sequester showdown, refusing to release aviation funding to the point that FAA had to furlough many of its air traffic controllers, resulting in hundreds of US flights being delayed or canceled.In other words, congressmen are willing to shut down the US air transport system for the sake of their petty budget fights, but threaten their peace in their first-class aircraft seat and bring on the legislative hammer!

The phone bill has a long passage before and if it becomes law, but would appear to have the support of US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx, who said last year he wants to ban such calls to protect aviation consumers.

Congress was stirred to action because of the potential for inflight cellphone use to be permitted now that the US Federal Communications Committee and FAA have decided such calls do not pose a safety concern.

We all realize that a long, loud phone call by a fellow passenger has the potential to be irritating, but if it’s safe then it is not something that Congress or DOT should regulate. Just as some trains offer “quiet” cars where voice calls are not permitted, and some hotels and cruise ships ban smoking completely while others permit it in designated areas, airlines should be left to decide how best to approach the use of cellphones.

Delta Air Lines decided what its policy would be early on, announcing it would not allow inflight calls because feedback from its customers says they do not want this  service and cabin crews do not want the hassle of dealing with potential arguments over noisy calls. Delta CEO Richard Anderson was right to make his airline policy clear regardless of where regulation on the issue ends up. Delta may well attract more customers as a result – equally, however, there may be some people who are attracted to an airline that allows cellular calls and there may be some airlines that want to charge people for seats in either a “quiet zone” or a “phones allowed zone” on their planes.

Some US carriers may be quietly hoping that Congress and DOT take this issue out of their hands because they don’t want the hassle of dealing with another potential “air rage” factor. But it would be a huge mistake to, quite rightly, want less regulatory interference in matters of business, but then seek it out when it’s convenient. If unruly passengers are the concern in the cellphone debate, airlines should campaign for stronger laws and punishment against those who disrupt flights and for clearer protections for flight crew who have to intervene and possibly constrain an offending passenger.

Republicans in general, and House transport committee chairman Bill Shuster in particular, have made their anti-big government battle cry a cornerstone of their legislative stalemate. Yet they want the government to intervene in cellphone use because, in Shuster’s words, such calls are “too loud, too close, or too personal.” That’s not a safety or fair-consumer issue. When it comes to inflight chatter, only airlines and their customers should make that call.

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