Is the Ascendance of Cell Phone Hell Upon Us?


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 FCCs 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. Its not clear to me why they have jurisdiction on altitude limits, but thats 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 FCCs 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. Were pretty cramped on planes, says Curtis Grimm of the University of Marylands Robert H. Smith School of Business. He told Marketplace that polls show customers dont want to see cell phone usage on aircraft in flight.

And therein lies potential gold for the airlines. Customers dont want baggage fees, long security lines, pecking-order boarding or $15 snacks, but thats exactly what theyre getting. Thats because the airlines have perversely figured out that passengers, having little choice, will pay to be less miserable. Theyll pay for more legroom, to board the aircraft earlier, for expedited security and, Im 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 isnt 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 wont be the slightest bit surprised. I also wont 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 its my distinct impression that Im 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 its 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, theres no good argument not to do this. But heres 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?

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