Frequent fliers rejoiced last year when the Federal Aviation Administration announced that airline passengers could use their tablets, e-books, and other devices from takeoff to landing. But travelers were decidedly less excited at the prospect of being stuck on a plane listening to their fellow passengers’ phone calls.
In late November, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was reconsidering the ban on cell-phone usage on commercial airplanes. After determining that mobile wireless devices can be used in flight without interfering with land-based wireless networks, the FCC opened up the discussion to the public for input. After making a similar determination regarding potential impact on critical aircraft operations and communications, the Department of Transportation also reached out to the public for their comments. And the response has been a resounding “No.”
A December 2013 Quinnipiac University nationwide poll of 2,692 registered voters across the United States showed 59 percent in favor of banning in-flight cell phone usage and 30 percent opposed to the ban. Quinnipiac stated, “Support for the mute button is strong among all groups, even voters 18 to 29 years old, who oppose phones on planes 52% to 39%.”
These results are consistent with the responses Consumer Reports received from readers via social media. When we asked people on Facebook whether the proposal to allow passengers to use their phones during flights was "great news or noise pollution," the outpouring of comments was almost universally opposed to the idea. One reader said: "I love my smart phone, but phones in tight quarters are horrible. It would be awful."
Consumers aren’t the only ones who want to keep cell phones silenced on planes. Industry experts expressed serious concerns during Congressional hearings on the issue in 2000 and 2005. And lawmakers—frequent fliers themselves—have offered up bipartisan bills to ban calls on planes in the House and the Senate in response to this latest proposal.
In December, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act. When describing the bill, Alexander said: “Imagine two million passengers, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts. The Transportation Security Administration would have to hire three times as many air marshals to deal with the fistfights.”
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), who introduced the Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act of 2013, shared a similar view: “For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.”
Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, agrees, and recently filed comments (PDF) against lifting the ban on phones with the DOT. The percentage of occupied seats on planes is at an all-time high. That increase, combined with the fact that travelers are already dealing with the frustrations of rising airline fees, long lines, limited overhead bag space, and possible delays or cancellations, leads to the concern that calls on flights could ignite an already volatile situation and spur additional incidents of “air rage.”
While consumers might be interested in being able to use their phones to text, e-mail, or play games, consumers and policymakers seem to agree that allowing phone calls on planes could be more of a problem starter than solution. The tensions and frustrations that come with commercial air travel are higher than ever. Opening the gates to expanded cell phone calls still seems to us as bad an idea as it ever was.