Loud cellphone talkers next bane of air travelers?
NEW YORK - Airline passengers have already been stripped of their legroom, hot meals, and personal space. Now, they might also lose their silence.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering lifting its longtime prohibition on making cellphone calls on airplanes, saying it was time "to review our outdated and restrictive rules."
But for many passengers, that would mean the elimination of one of the last sanctuaries in a hyper-connected world. Everybody wants to stay connected while traveling, but nobody wants to be trapped next to somebody yapping during the entire trip from New York to Las Vegas.
"The only way I'd be in favor of this is if the FCC mandated that all those who want to use their cellphones must sit next to families with screaming children," frequent flier Joe Winogradoff said.
Amtrak and many local commuter railways have set aside quiet cars for those who don't want to be trapped next to loud talkers. It's not hard to imagine airlines offering "quiet rows," although there will probably be an extra fee to sit there. Perhaps they'll be more effective than the old smoking and nonsmoking sections.
One flight attendant union has already come out against any change, saying a plane full of chattering passengers could lead to arguments and undermine safety.
Passenger Kai Xu had another concern: What's going to happen to the already limited bathrooms on planes? "Are they going to become the telephone booths for those who want to talk on the phone in private?" he asked.
Not everybody hates the idea. Craig Robins, a lawyer who flies nearly 100,000 miles a year, said a relaxation of the ban would be "a mixed blessing."
"Having the ability to communicate with my office, my family, and my friends, especially for making necessary plans for airport pickups and meetings on the day of arrival, is invaluable," he said.
Most Middle East airlines and a few in Asia and Europe already allow voice calls on planes. Passengers' cellphone signals are relayed via satellite or through a special "picocell" to the ground. Voice calls technically can be made now on some U.S. planes via satellite, but airlines block providers such as Skype, in part because they fear it will eat up the limited bandwidth.
Within hours of the FCC's announcement, the cellphone industry voiced its support. Airlines already charge for Internet access. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine charging for phone use.
American and United Airlines said they would wait for an FCC decision and then study the issue. Delta Air Lines was much more firm, saying passenger feedback for years had shown "overwhelming" support for a ban.
JetBlue and Southwest also noted a desire for silence, but added that tastes and desires change.
"If everyone starts doing it and it becomes culturally acceptable, we'd have to consider it," Southwest Airlines spokesman Brad Hawkins said. "But no one thinks it's a good idea."