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Let’s calm down about cellphones on planes

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By Debra J. Saunders
Published:
I have found the issue that can bring America together. Republicans and Democrats, urban hipsters and country folk, corporate scions and infrequent fliers — they all seem to agree: The federal government must not allow mobile phone use on planes.
If the Federal Communications Commission allows airlines with properly equipped planes to open the cellphone gates on commercial flights, even Washington agrees there will be revolts in the friendly skies.
Last week, by a bipartisan voice vote, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a bill, the Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act, to the House floor.
Chairman Bill Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania and the bill’s author, argues that at 30,000 feet, fellow passengers do not have the option of walking away from obnoxious loudmouths. Ergo, the Department of Transportation must ban voice calls on planes. Shuster, however, does favor regulations to allow passengers to use their phones and tablets to text, send emails and work online. He’s got a catchy slogan: “Tap, don’t talk.”
Me, I feel sorry for the poor chumps at the FCC. Since 1991, the FCC has banned cellphone use on planes, lest the signals interfere with wireless networks on the ground. With the advent of technology that can prevent interference, the FCC revisited the rule. In October, the FCC ruled that passengers may leave on their phones (in airplane mode) and personal electronic devices during takeoff and landing — because its mission is to regulate technology, not passenger behavior.
Kudos, the public should cheer. Finally, a regulatory agency that doesn’t want to overreach its authority. Shuster himself noted that it is the responsibility of the Department of Transportation, not the FCC, to make rules in the name of airline safety.
Unconcerned with jurisdictional matters, however, the public has flooded the FCC with protests. According to The Associated Press, 48 percent of Americans (78 percent of frequent fliers) oppose allowing passengers to talk on their phones.
I get it. As airlines try to make flights cheaper — a good thing — seats are closer together and service lacks even the oh-so-modest frills of yore. When flying is a chore, passengers get grumpy. It’s no fun even just riding public transportation next to a bigmouth, and city bus rides don’t last six hours like a cross-country flight. The flying public fears “air rage” incidents.
That said, Americans are overreacting. The FCC conducted a study of countries that allowed cellphone use on planes in 2012; none of the 11 authorities that responded reported “any cases of air rage or flight attendant interference.” Most countries reported low usage and short calls, and if there were complaints, they were about the cost or interruption of service.
If the FCC allows voice calls, my guess is that U.S. airlines will prohibit or strictly limit usage. Delta and Southwest have announced their intent to just say no. Legal departments, litigious consumers and flight attendant unions should take care of the rest.
I know world travelers who pay big bucks to visit countries that offer hole-in-the-floor plumbing and bus rides with barnyard animals and who nonetheless are terrified at the prospect of flying on a U.S. airline on which other passengers can make cellphone calls.
Truly, we live in a golden age. Americans’ idea of hardship is flying safely over the entire country in six hours, with access to movies, music and their choice of news. But oh, the horrors, someone else being able to make a phone call? For this, Congress will act.
Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. Copyright 2014 Creators.com

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