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Transportation Insiders

Cell Phones on Planes Have Lawmakers Hopping

photo of Fawn Johnson
December 16, 2013

What does House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., have to do with the popular news and entertainment site Buzzfeed? Cell phones!

The committee's Web site is linking to a Buzzfeed Tumblr page listing the top 10 conversations you don't want to hear on an airplane. (In characteristic fashion, the Buzzfeed page includes its fair share of animal videos.)

 

Shuster is letting Buzzfeed make the argument for his bill to ban in-flight cell phone conversations, a move that regulators are already considering as they lift some restrictions on cell phone use during flight. Passengers, including influential lawmakers, are weighing in.

E-mail and texting? Fine. Yapping on the phone? Not fine, says, well ... just about everybody. Forget limited government regulation. This is a cramped cabin we're talking about. There oughta be a law! Shuster's bill already has 21 co-sponsors, with Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has similar legislation with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking Democrat on the Aviation Subcommittee, cheered Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's statement last week that his agency would consider regulations to ban cell phone chats on planes. "As I've been saying for years, allowing passengers to make in-flight phone calls would not only show a complete disregard for an American public that overwhelmingly opposes them, but would also pose serious safety issues for everyone in the cabin," DeFazio said.

Serious safety issues? That's a stretch. But it's clear that lawmakers, even those deeply steeped in transportation law or sworn to allow businesses to operate unregulated, are willing to step in and say enough is enough when it comes to cell conversations on planes. Maybe their outrage is a subtle dig at the ever-closer quarters in a flight cabin or maybe it's simply that members make far too many flights a year to cope with having to deal with phone calls, theirs or someone else's.

Either way, it's entertaining, largely because for once they are not talking about politics or the strictures of the law. As Alexander noted, "Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense."

What would Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia have to say about that?

For our insiders: What are the advantages of allowing cell phone use in airplanes? Are there any safety concerns, as DeFazio suggests? How can regulators from the telecom world (the Federal Communications Commission) and the aviation world (the Federal Aviation Administration) get along in this particular case? Is this really a legitimate business decision that the government is encroaching on? Or should regulators be able to step in when it comes to the preferences of customers, rather than just their safety? Why is this issue creating such a furor?

(Note: This blog is a moderated discussion on transportation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to become a regular commenter.)

From the Transportation Insiders

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