Malika Begum is one of those people you’re afraid of.
Begum is a consultant who flies about eight times a month; she hates losing work time while in flight and wishes she could talk on her phone at 30,000 feet. “For people like me, we need to be in touch with other people all the time. It’s a very good convenience to have,” she said Friday while rushing her way through Reagan National Airport.
Indeed, Begum says she’d pay an extra $20 per flight for phone privileges.
Andrew Marshall says he’d pay $300 not to hear her—or anyone else—during his time in the sky. For Marshall, a Navy senior chief petty officer fresh off a flight home from Southeast Asia, the prospect of cell phones interrupting his peace of mind provoked a visceral reaction.
But Marshall’s bidding war with Begum may not always be hypothetical. After the Federal Communications Commission opened the door last week to ending the in-flight call ban, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggested airlines set their policies “in consultation with their customers.”
Several flyers interviewed by National Journal Daily said they would consider paying an extra fee to use their phone—or to avoid others who do. And when passengers are willing to pay for something, airlines have a long track record of finding a way to charge them.
“I’d pay 50 to 100 bucks more to be in the ‘quiet car,’ ” said Brent Reynolds, who travels frequently to sell hats and outerwear for his company. “I don’t want to be there with a lot of people yakking loudly.”
“If prices were similar, that might be a decider,” said Shauna Crane, who works for Utah State University and flies a couple of times a month. She prefers watching movies on her iPad during flight, not listening to phone conversations.
Polls show that most flyers would prefer calls remain off-limits up in the air, as the passenger cabin offers a rare refuge from our hyper-connected lives. Whispers of any tampering with the off-the-grid etiquette immediately strike fear in the hearts of most passengers worried that their sacred haven could go the way of the movie theater or train car, where telephonic interruptions are all too common.
It’s enough to make Marshall, the Navy officer, cringe. And predict violence.
“There would be more in-flight instances where people would be getting into fights,” Marshall said while holding his 1-year-old son next to the terminal’s two-story Christmas tree. “I know for a fact. An 11-hour, 12-hour flight, you get pretty annoyed. You’re tired, and it’s just bad business, in my opinion.”
Begum, the consultant, was surprised to learn people like Marshall have voiced such strong opposition, though she concedes some calls would be more appropriate than others. “Your mother’s dying, you have a very important client call, you should be able to answer,” Begum offers. “But if it’s chatting away about your weekend plans, I feel like that can wait.”
Marshall contends no call is so important that it can’t wait until landing. “Fly to Japan and back and tell me how fruitful of an event that is,” he groans.
If bidding wars are the future, regulatory battles are the present.
The FCC’s 3-2 vote last week to begin a public-comment process that could change in-flight phone rules sparked a quick backlash. The Department of Transportation said it will consider seeking its own ban to protect consumers, and lawmakers are already touting new legislation that would achieve the same result.
Initiation of the comment period, however, does not mean the FCC has made up its mind. Before finishing any new rule, the agency has several other procedural hurdles that will take months—and possibly even years—to resolve.
This article appears in the December 17, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as How Much Would You Pay for a Quiet Flight?.