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Is the Ascendance of Cell Phone Hell Upon Us?

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In 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse famously tapped out the first telegraph message, “what hath God wrought?” Were he an airline passenger today ruminating on the FCC’s likely decision to lift the ban on cell phone use in airliners, he would text something along the lines of “what fresh hell is this?”

None of this is finalized yet, but the FCC appears poised to allow cell phone usage in aircraft above 10,000 feet. It’s not clear to me why they have jurisdiction on altitude limits, but that’s a niggle. The ball will now sail across the net into the airlines’ court to decide when or even if passengers will be allowed to use phones in flight.

This makes me nervous. Very nervous. According to Marketplace Business, American and United will wait for the FCC’s decision, but Southwest and Delta say they would consider allowing calls, depending on customer attitudes. The flight attendants union is opposed to the idea and so, evidently, are a majority of consumers. “We’re pretty cramped on planes, “ says Curtis Grimm of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He told Marketplace that polls show customers don’t want to see cell phone usage on aircraft in flight.

And therein lies potential gold for the airlines. Customers don’t want baggage fees, long security lines, pecking-order boarding or $15 snacks, but that’s exactly what they’re getting. That’s because the airlines have perversely figured out that passengers, having little choice, will pay to be less miserable. They’ll pay for more legroom, to board the aircraft earlier, for expedited security and, I’m sure eventually, access to the lav. Add cell phone use to the list.

But rather than charge to make calls, what if the airlines hew to recent trends and charge extra for seats where cell phone usage isn’t allowed? You can see the up sell checkbox: $25 to sit in a cell phone-free seating row. Will the revenue opportunity be just too irresistible? I won’t be the slightest bit surprised. I also won’t be surprised if fist fights break out in first class.

Cell phone rudeness is a unique scourge of the modern age. Fortunately, I sense that the world may be realizing this for it’s my distinct impression that I’m encountering less of it than I used to. The last obnoxious experience was sitting on the bus from the NBAA static display last month next to a woman who prattled on for 20 minutes, completely oblivious to the rising ire of everyone within five feet of her. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think in general, more people are more courteous than they used to be because everyone is so utterly irritated by a loud, long cell phone conversation.

The FAA and FCC are right to lift outdated and pointless rules restricting use of personal electronic devices, including cell phones. From the technical and safety standpoint, there’s no good argument not to do this. But here’s hoping that the airlines do the right thing and prohibit or sharply restrict voice calls. Is that too much to ask to retain a shard of civility in the airline traveling experience?\

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (18)

Sounds like ANR headphones will have another purpose on flights. Is this proposed to be an aircraft based 'micro cell' solution, or will we see changes to cell towers to allow our phones to hit ground based stations. If so, this could be a great asset to GA in weather and voice backup.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | November 23, 2013 3:15 PM    Report this comment

They are aircraft network solutions, involving a local cell network inside the airplane that routes the calls to the terrestrial network via satellite or direct link.

Far as I know, the ground-based cell network won't be changed to accommodate this rulemaking. Also, keep this in mind: the FCC's 2007 decision to continue the prohibition against cell phone use on airplanes wasn't based on technical issues, but on market and customer preference issues. The FCC thought people would be irritated by cellular use in airplanes. That's really not in the FCC purview, but they did it anyway.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 24, 2013 6:06 AM    Report this comment

No it is not too much to ask. However, by the lack of response to your observations, I think the loud mouth cell talkers have, by and large have given way to the glow faced "texter". Text away my friends.

Posted by: mike brooker | November 24, 2013 10:01 AM    Report this comment

Another reason not to travel by airlines when able. Einstein had it right. Eventually the addiction to electronics and smart devices will leave us with a world of idiots hacking into some sort of screen every wake minute. "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." According to leading psychologists and scholars of the human mind it is not abnormal to recognize a strong desire to disassociate from the society of narcissists we are continuing to build.

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 24, 2013 4:50 PM    Report this comment

'According to leading psychologists and scholars of the human mind it is not abnormal to recognize a strong desire to disassociate from the society of narcissists we are continuing to build.'

Good to know these exalted ones still buy into the illusion of 'normal' or 'abnormal' behavior - the great leveler of societal control and power.

It's easy to confuse the growing dependency on electronic gadgets with narcissism, but I don't. Actually, I feel we're growing more interconnected and social and less narcissistic, but that might not be normal. Or, maybe it is. Or, maybe not.

Anyway, I say if it gets loud from the airborne phone-dependent, start the song 99 bottles of beer on the wall with gusto. I will, please join in! May not be normal, but with 5-10 people singing, face toward the yapper, could sure be some airborne fun.

Posted by: Dave Miller | November 24, 2013 6:46 PM    Report this comment

"Actually, I feel we're growing more interconnected and social and less narcissistic, but that might not be normal. Or, maybe it is. Or, maybe not. " - [You forgot to add some sort of expression of sarcasm, I suppose.] If we are talking in terms of Facebook, I would have to agree, never has it been easier to learn what Mary had for lunch 6 days ago or why her weekend last week put to shame the level of excitement in anyone else's life. People seem to have this unsustainable desire for fame and glory Facebook would certainly not call it what it is, a lifestyle of mental exhibitionism, gone bonkers. Recently sat in a Chinese restaurant with a family of 7 (!) sitting across, each typing into some sort of device. Food was served, consumed and the whole shebang left without ever exchanging words. They did look up on occasion and somehow gestured to their device to share with brothers, sisters or parents, but mentioning the quality of food (in person) would have caused anxiety. I won't go into the social anxiety disorders that cause youngsters to have supergau melt-downs when directly spoken to. Walk out of any college classroom and try not to be run over by a heads-down smartphone user. How about childcare centers with 5 year old's maintaining their own facebook profile right off their smartphone. A 5 year old with a Blackberry. Not sure. Airplanes used to be a halfway acceptable safe zones from peoples need to have extra loud conversations or failing at turning their cellphone volume down, so that not everyone around them becomes part of their texting addiction. I do hope the airlines find tricky ways to charge for providing the network. Who knows, the ticket from Seattle to Miami might just cost $99.99 but the flight will become profitable through the $500.00 tagged on cellphone and wireless network charges... haha. ;o) Rental car for me, domestically. Noise reduction headphones on the international flights, I guess...

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 25, 2013 7:26 AM    Report this comment

Just imagine half the folks in an airplane cabin yaking on their phone at the same time! And what about travel weary folks trying to get a few winks? I say no, no, no to cell phone use except for texting.

Posted by: G Stegall | November 25, 2013 8:39 AM    Report this comment

"99 bottles of beer on the wall!!" I love it! Thanks Dave; what a great solution to a stubborn problem!! Count me in, I'll be singing full throttle with the mixture leaned! On second thought, I'll be full rich after the third drink

Posted by: A Richie | November 25, 2013 8:48 AM    Report this comment

This thought came to me just after submitting my no vote and the reason's why. Shouldn't it be up to the airlines themselves to say whether to allow voice communications onboard? It seems to me that just because FCC says it's ok doesn't mean it's mandatory. An airline could use the "no cell phone use" as a way to attract customer's. Of course some people may not like it but others would love it. It's all about putting the indivual airlines in charge of their business plan.

Posted by: G Stegall | November 25, 2013 8:49 AM    Report this comment

It is up to the airlines to decide, as noted in the original text.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 25, 2013 9:17 AM    Report this comment

Public humiliation remains effective. I remember travelling on a French high-speed train with every seat in the carriage occupied once when a lady of a certain age, obviously not completely at ease with new technology, started a mobile phone conversation about Julie's problems in a loud voice and with the speaker on, even though the phone was held so tight against her ear the microwaves probably completed the work lead in gas had given up on... Slowly the whole carriage started commenting about Julie's problems and suggesting, shall we say not completely kind, solutions. It was hilarious, except for the old dame, who gradually aftr 5 minutes became aware something was up and she was being laughed at. When she gave her final "au revoir " the whole carriage started clapping. I bet she never used a mobile phone without considering those around her again.

Posted by: John Patson | November 25, 2013 9:36 AM    Report this comment

Put all the cell-phone users in the non-reclining or bulkhead seats, or restrict them to seating in the back of the aircraft, just like foreign airlines do, or used to do for smokers. Charge them for use of their phones, not the other way around.

Commuter trains commonly offer "quiet cars" just to allow people to get away from phone-yakkers. They are always full.

Posted by: David MacRae | November 25, 2013 9:45 AM    Report this comment

John Patson, I've observed the same behavior in France - both on trains and in restaurants. The French have a commendable attitude regarding rude behavior. Perhaps there is something we could learn from them.

Posted by: C Hadlai Hull | November 25, 2013 10:12 AM    Report this comment

$29.95/ Minute, charged directly to the credit card you used to book the flight. Talking should be limited to a stand up only, isolated cabin on board. Proposal: $ 9.99/Text with the volume off, $39.99/ Text if the passengers around you push the "Annoyed!" button. The "Annoyed!" button should collectively charge all cell phone users for one occurrence. This way they'll get up and knock each other unconscious for being charged for another addicts misbehavior. Great money opportunity for the airlines. Before you know it, either nobody will use a device, or the flights will be free to most of us others...

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 25, 2013 10:14 AM    Report this comment

"John Patson, I've observed the same behavior in France - both on trains and in restaurants. The French have a commendable attitude regarding rude behavior. Perhaps there is something we could learn from them." - Just have a full blown conversation, respond to everything they say as if they were talking to you, when you encounter someone on the phone, unable to show a minimum of respect for others by getting up and leaving the room. I've done it and even though its an odd feeling at first, especially in full restaurants, you can actually cause enough of a ruckus for offenders to stop. They are not going to be happy about being put on a spot like this, but its a great thing. Most people are just too damn polite to say something, once someone starts to criticize cellphone monkeys, they'll chime in. Remember, it's a herd thing. Monkey see - Monkey do... with the proper trigger.

Posted by: Jason Baker | November 25, 2013 10:24 AM    Report this comment

Talk about a win, win , win situation! The communications addicted can yak non stop from Helsinki to HongKong for an extra charge, the cell phone haters can get away from the yammer by paying extra for silence via noise cancelling headsets and the airlines can make money.

As for me, I'm getting long-range tanks for the Meyers.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 25, 2013 12:37 PM    Report this comment

Jason, maybe we don't need to get so heavy into the weeds about this is all I'm saying. What Mary had for lunch six days ago is what people talk about, not how nuanced a talk by Christopher Hitchens was. Well, some do I suppose. But maybe the family of seven didn't speak English well and were slightly hesitant to reveal the contrast. Maybe they just had their first flight in a small plane and were speechless. Maybe they left a huge tip.

As far as 5 year olds having a Blackberry, who cares? It's their business. If we give others the space to turn around completely they usually find out the error of their ways, if they're looking. Life's rather mundane for the great majority of us, so sharing it with others gives some solace and identification so badly needed without real self-independence.

It's pervasive and having its 15 minutes, but I don't think the majority of the flying public will stand for any excessive use if it's implemented. Things might have been very interesting, however, if the TSA hadn't abandoned its idea to allow knives back on planes... :-0

Posted by: Dave Miller | November 25, 2013 2:45 PM    Report this comment

I prefer no cell phones (voice) in the cabin of commercial airliners. I don't care people in the cabin text or browse. I don't enjoy long winded conversations at tables around me in restaurants, and don't really want to have the same experience during enforced proximity for hours in the cabin of my airbus or boeing ride.

Posted by: John townsley | November 29, 2013 3:05 PM    Report this comment

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