Don’t Ban In-Flight Calls; Allow Experimentation

by on September 23, 2014 · 1 comment

According to this article by Julian Hattem in The Hill (“Lawmakers warn in-flight calls could lead to fights“), 77 congressional lawmakers have sent a letter to the heads of four federal agencies warning them not to allow people to have in-flight cellphone conversations on the grounds that it “could lead to heated arguments among passengers that distract officials’ attention and make planes less safe.”  The lawmakers say “arguments in an aircraft cabin already start over mundane issues, like seat selection and overhead bin space, and the volume and pervasiveness of voice communications would only serve to exacerbate and escalate these disputes.” They’re also concerned that it may distract passengers from important in-flight announcements.

Well, I think I speak for a lot of other travelers when I say I find the idea of gabby passengers — whether on a phone or just among themselves — insanely annoying. For those of us who value peace and quiet and find airline travel to be among the most loathsome of experiences to begin with, it might be tempting to sympathize with this letter and just say, “Sure, go ahead and make this a federal problem and solve this for us with an outright ban.”

But isn’t there a case to be made here for differentiation and choice over yet another one-size-fits all mandate? Why must we have federal lawmakers or bureaucrats dictating that every flight be the same? I don’t get that. After all, enough of us would be opposed to in-flight calls that we would likely pressure airlines to not offer many of them. But perhaps a few flights or routes might be “business traveler”-oriented and offer this option to those who do. Or perhaps some airlines would restrict calling to certain areas of the cabin, or limit when the calls could occur.

I dealt with a similar issue back in 2007 when Democratic representative Heath Shuler of North Carolina, along with several cosponsors, introduced the “Family Friendly Flights Act,” which would have required that airlines create “child safe viewing areas”: no publicly viewable TV screens would air violent programming within ten rows of the designated zones. The act defined  “violent programming” as any movie originally rated PG-13 or above, or any television show rated PG-V or PG-14-V or above.

As I noted at the time, it was somewhat easy for me to sympathize with other parents of young children who didn’t want them seeing violent fare during flights. However, I noted that there were some alternatives to government censorship of in-flight films, including privacy film to cover the screens or “no-video” flight options. The law never passed and instead what we got was airlines toning down some of the more violent and racy stuff because of public pressure.

I think that same sort of “social pressure / social norms” response would deter some of the most egregious behavior by passengers who used cell phones to carry on conversations. After all, legislators are certainly correct when they assert that tensions already run high over lesser matters inside the cabin of planes (like bin space and reclining seats). But somehow we get by without new laws on that front.

So, instead of always looking first to one-size-fits all mandates to solve such problems, perhaps a little experimentation and differentiation among carriers could yield a better solution to such problems. Sure, I know that’s not easy because of the relatively standardized airplane cabin designs. But perhaps that could change, too. Is it really all that unthinkable that some carrier in the future might create segregated cabin areas for “connected class” vs. “quiet class,” for example? Why couldn’t some enterprising airline retrofit at least some of the planes to accommodate such travelers, either on the same plane or perhaps, if needed, on completely different flights catering to both types of travelers? And, again, let’s remember that a lot of airlines aren’t going to want to deal with any of this and, therefore, most of them will likely tightly self-regulate cell phone talking on their own.

The bottom line is that we should not foreclose experimentation and choice so hastily when competition might spur creative solutions to complex problems. Not everything needs to be a federal matter.


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