How Much Would You Pay for a Quiet Flight?

A plane comes in for a landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at dusk November 1, 2013. Earlier in the day a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle inside the airport, killing a security agent, creating scenes of chaos and causing widespread flight disruptions. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Dec. 16, 2013, 4:08 p.m.

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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.

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