To the already jumbo-size list of air-travel indignities -- snaking security lines, intrusive pat-downs, baggage fees on top of rising fares, and brown-bag meals with knees scrunched up against the next seat -- add one more: an endless, unavoidable stream of one-sided cellphone chatter while aloft.
Not since passengers chafed at airlines' reluctance to ban smoking on flights has there been a more predictable threat to travellers' frayed nerves than U.S. federal regulators' plan to lift the ban on in-flight cellphone use.
As early as next week, the Federal Communications Commission could recommend that course for public comment. With old concerns about communications interference resolved by evolving technology, the FCC has concluded it's safe to pull out that smartphone during a flight. By permitting the use of digital devices -- at which point it would be up to airline regulators and operators to go along -- the agency says it would be fulfilling its charge to periodically address "outdated and restrictive rules."
The move could free travelers from having to pay for onboard wireless service now offered at premium prices on many flights. Relaxing the ban also would let passengers stay connected 24/7, much as they're accustomed to doing while their feet are firmly on the ground.
But along with that gain would come a death knell for what many travellers view as one of the last places they can sit undisturbed (crying infants and fidgety seat companions excepted). As noted by Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a privacy watchdog, "There is no quiet car at 30,000 feet." Even when the seatbelt light goes off and passengers are free to move about the cabin, there will be no way to completely escape annoying phone conversations.
Sure, calls could be conducted at whisper level by passengers who are solicitous of their fellow fliers. Yet judging from the conduct of too many cellphone users -- in just about every imaginable public setting, from the coffee shop to the sidewalk -- that's probably too much to expect.
Little wonder, then, online forums and letters to the editor have been teeming with bad reviews for the proposed lifting of the phone ban. If the FCC gets even more of an earful during its comment period, that will give it even more reason to reconsider the move. Indeed, a recent survey found nearly two-thirds of Americans are opposed to allowing in-flight calls.
Were the FCC to go ahead with the proposal, airlines might well be able to deploy technology or policies that restrict calls while allowing passengers to tap away on their tablets and smartphones in relative quiet. In Europe, one airline limits the number of phone calls that can be made at any given time. Even if texting is enabled to provide a means of instant communication from the air, maintaining a voice ban would be the smartest and simplest route to keeping the skies as friendly as possible.