MEMBERS OF Congress are some of America’s most frequent fliers, so perhaps it is no surprise that even the regulation-wary voted this week to prohibit in-flight voice calls as part of a reauthorization package for the Federal Aviation Administration. The rules codify the will of most consumers and airlines alike.
The issue of voice calls on airplanes has taken a back seat this year to clashes over added fees and, most important, air traffic control reform. But a Federal Communications Commission proposal in 2013 to let airlines experiment with travelers switching their connections back on at cruising altitude was met with an uproar, largely from citizens concerned about loud conversations filling the cabin. This summer, a Nielsen survey found that 89 percent of passengers would prefer to keep things quiet in the clouds.
No wonder. Constant yammering from a seat companion in cramped quarters over the course of what could be hours of travel is far from pleasant. It is more difficult every day to find refuge from full-time connectivity. On buses, trains and automobiles, the battle is mostly lost, but planes, so far, have remained places of relative peace. By putting a law into place, Congress is preserving this norm against infringement as time goes on.
Airlines seem to agree. So far, they have expressed little interest in allowing passengers to speak on the phone after wheels-up. Loud chitchatting is a nuisance to flight attendants trying to communicate instructions or take drink orders, and fliers perturbed by a fellow passenger’s disruptive behavior are not any easier to serve. That may help explain why, even as airlines have become more permissive about phone use over time, they continue to ban voice calls via onboard WiFi.
We supported the FCC’s 2013 plan to allow cellular data in-flight so that flyers who wanted to stay tethered to those on the ground could do so more easily. Today, as then, there is no reason not to let passengers turn off airplane mode with the right technology on board. But the question here is not whether airlines open themselves up to cell service along with WiFi. It is whether either of those systems can be used to facilitate bothersome babbling. Passengers will still be able to access their smartphones for texting, emailing and browsing. That means if fliers need to connect, they can — without annoying their neighbors.
Congress could consider revising its ban in the future to permit calls made with muffling devices or from private booths installed on board, if airlines think it desirable. For now, though, it seems legislators have given Americans what they want: a little bit of solace, just this once.