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NJ Daily

That Time Republicans Wanted More Regulation

When it comes to cell-phone calls on airplanes, some GOP lawmakers say federal restrictions are just fine.

photo of Elahe Izadi
December 17, 2013

Planes, Phones, and What Americans Hate the Most

From Big Gulps to greenhouse-gas emissions, the GOP has no interest in being aligned with "nanny state" governance. It is the party of fewer regulations, not more—except when it comes to phone calls on planes.

Several Republican lawmakers are on a crusade to avoid having to hear their seatmates jabber endlessly, and they think the federal government needs to do something about it.

 

"This case is different because of common sense," GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said of his proposal to ban cell-phone calls on planes. "The Republican Party is also a nonviolent party, and if you allow 2 million passengers every day to yap their innermost thoughts while strapped in 17-inch seats between two other persons, you'd have to have 10 new air marshals on every airplane.

"So this is an effort to promote peace and justice, and I'm sure Republicans are for that as well."

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster has also introduced a bill to ban phone calls on planes. The Pennsylvania Republican has 17 GOP and 11 Democratic cosponsors, and the bill is similar to one introduced by Alexander and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. The bills would ban only cell-phone calls by passengers, not text messaging.

Shuster doesn't view his proposal as unnecessary government regulation. "We are eliminating the ban on people being able to text and email, so what I say is, tap, don't talk," he said. "This is about social discourse in our skies today. They're in confined places, crowded … I think it's unnecessary to add this."

What's got everyone so worried about this anyway? Well, the Federal Communications Commission is considering lifting its ban on cell-phone calls while flying, a ruling that would only deal with the technological question of whether it's safe for such calls to be made in the air. The Transportation Department has begun a comment period as the agency examines whether to ban in-flight calls to protect travelers' rights and safety. The Federal Aviation Administration has already issued new guidelines on allowing use of electronic devices—though not phone calls—during takeoffs and landings.

House leadership is "happy to" work with Shuster on the bill, according to an aide, and Shuster says he may get a floor vote in the New Year on his proposal. He also says he has popular opinion behind him. In a recent Associated Press-GfK poll, 48 percent of respondents said they were totally opposed to allowing passengers to make calls on commercial flights; 19 percent were in favor and 30 percent said they neither favored nor opposed it. (The overall error margin was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.)

Libertarian-leaning Reason commissioned its own poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, showing 45 percent of Americans favor allowing calls during flights, with 50 percent opposed. (The margin of error was plus or minus 3.7 points.) The site writes that other polls "do not make it clear whether Americans want the government to ban their fellow passengers from talking on cell phones during commercial flights, or if they think that decision should be left to the individual airlines."

Lawmakers like Shuster cite the specter of pandemonium breaking out at 30,000 feet, particularly given that many flight attendants hate the idea.

"In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating risks that are far too great," Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement. "As the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, flight attendants understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment, and passengers agree."

But these lawmakers also don't think that the private market should be the final arbiter on whether people should be allowed to speak on phones. "How do you let the market decide? We didn't let the market decide if people could smoke on planes," Shuster said. "It's very difficult to segregate on planes, like on trains with the quiet car."

The nuisance factor may reign supreme, as even members of Congress—who travel frequently—are concerned about their trips back home. Shuster says individual members of Congress are "a microcosm" of the traveling public. And they "are coming up to me saying, 'Let's not do this. It's confined. It's loud.' "

Alexander only has to worry about a one-hour flight home, but his cosponsor, Feinstein, has a five-hour trip back to California. "She could be trapped in between two people talking about their innermost personal thoughts for five whole hours and she can't get out of her seat, she can't get off the airplane," Alexander said. "So I think that most Americans think this is just plain common sense."

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