Lawmakers: Phone Calls On Planes Are Unsafe Because People Will Have Fights

Flying is painful enough as it is. Between arduous lines at security and ever-shrinking legroom, passengers are already plenty on-edge. Adding cell phone chatter to an already-tense high-altitude situation could be a recipe for disaster, and 77 members of Congress agree.

Late last year, the FCC started mulling a rule change that would allow passengers to chatter away at twenty thousand feet. This week, the lawmakers all signed on to a letter (PDF) that went to the FCC as well as the Departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Justice urging them not to let that happen, Ars Technica reports.

In the letter, the lawmakers cite “significant concerns about the safety, security and comfort implications of potential voice and wireless technology use” on planes. But the FAA has said that our phones don’t pose a technological safety threat to aircraft. The electromagnetic output from a phone doesn’t interfere with normal aircraft operations. Physically speaking, it’s perfectly safe to call the office from the plane you’re flying away from it on.

So what, specifically, is the safety concern? It’s not with the phones: it’s with the people who use them, and the rest of us who have to listen.

The fights passengers get into, the lawmakers argue, are genuine air safety concerns. And adding phones into the mix will only make it worse:

Passengers making voice calls during flight could impact the ability of crewmembers — flight attendants and pilots — to perform their jobs, keep passengers safe and the cabin environment calm. Arguments in an aircraft cabin already start over mundane issues, like seat selection, reclining seats and overhead bin space, and the volume and pervasiveness of voice communications would only serve to exacerbate and escalate these disputes.

The letter continues that because an airplane is, well, an airplane, passengers can’t “remove themselves from loud or unwanted conversations,” and “disputes may ensue.” That does seem likely.

“Instead of focusing on safety-related tasks,” the lawmakers write, “flight attendants may be forced to intervene in or mediate disputes between passengers on appropriate content and volume of voice calls, thus distracting their attention from other passengers and job responsibilities.”

Although it feels almost ridiculous to point to “people are going to be inconsiderate jerks to each other and make tense situations worse” as an actual safety concern, there’s definitely some real truth there. Passenger bad behavior already leads to a significant number of altercations, assaults, and flight diversions. Failing to think about the flying public’s very strong concerns about personal boundaries and passenger behavior, when making a rule about phone use, would be a recipe for disaster.

Although the FCC may move to allow voice calls on flights, the Department of Transportation has been working on their own proposal for new rules that would ban in-air calling. They are expected to make a public announcement about that rule late this year, which would put it on track to become final in the first half of 2015.

Earlier this year, representatives in the House proposed a bill that would ban the use of cell phones in the air, if agency rules failed to do so. Several of the bill’s co-sponsors were also among the group who sent this week’s letter.

In-flight phone calls would make air travel dangerous, lawmakers say [Ars Technica]

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