In Congress, a war on obnoxious airline passengers

Lawmakers may ban phone conversations on planes. But should the government protect you from being annoyed?

Chris Moody
Yahoo News

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From little kids to belligerent drunks, flying on an airplane can be a high pressure situation. (AP)


Congress may soon save you from ever having to deal with an annoying, horrible person who insists on yakking away on a cell phone during a commercial airline flight.

The House Transportation Committee plans to take up a bill Tuesday that would ban cell phone conversations during commercial flights. Advancements in technology combined with the possibility of looser rules from the Federal Communication Commission could make it possible to hold voice conversations at 35,000 feet, a practice some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want to stamp out before it starts.

Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania who is leading the charge in the War on Insufferable Plane Phone Talkers, said he expects the bill to pass through the committee. The bill, aptly named the “Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act of 2013” has a bipartisan coalition of 29 co-sponsors. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander have introduced a companion bill in the Senate. The bill would not ban the use of phones to browse the Internet or to text.

The move, Shuster said, has more to do with preserving sanity than safety.

“This is about people not being obnoxious and annoying in the air space. At the end of the day, this is all about social discourse,” Shuster told Yahoo News in an interview. “You’re in an environment on an airplane that’s close quarters. You’re captive, and the last thing people want to hear is some salesman making a pitch to a client or a father scolding his child or a husband and wife having an argument.”

The bill, however, raises serious questions about whether the federal government should have a say in a matter that really comes down to etiquette.

Should it be illegal to be obnoxious?

“In some cases, I think it is” the government’s role to stop people from being annoying, Shuster said.

Those who oppose a government ban argue that passengers and airlines will be able to self-police.

“Let us have our inflight cell phone calls,” Digital Trends editor Andrew Couts wrote in November. “The people who abuse the privilege will have an earful from their fellow passengers soon enough, trust us.”

Some airlines already are taking steps to block phone conversations before the government does. Delta and JetBlue have already declared company bans on in-flight phone blabbering, and more may follow if it becomes a problem.

Shuster doesn’t think the airlines’ efforts go far enough. He defended the need for the federal government to mandate the ban across the board and cites polls showing that people don’t want to be subjected to their fellow fliers' phone conversations.

“There’s a role for the government to play on some of these regulations about what people can and can’t do on flights,” Shuster said. “I think because the polling data is so strong — the public doesn’t want this — that this is an opportunity for us to make it simpler for everybody and say this is not something we want to do.”

The problem with planes, advocates of the government ban say, is that they offer no escape if a seat mate decides to sustain an hours-long conversation. Other public transportation options, such as planes and buses, have their own self-policing policies against irritating phone talkers. Trains offer escape options from yappy seatmates — passengers can find another seat or retreat to the dining car. Some Amtrak trains have a “Quiet Car” where passengers strictly enforce a policy of near-total silence. But most planes don’t offer anything close to that.

“This is a case where we’re captive up there in the airspace,” Shuster said.

The push for the bill came after the FCC announced last year that it will seek public comment on a proposal to allow airlines to decide their own in-flight rules.

"I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said during a congressional hearing in December. "But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission."

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