I Want to Make Voice Calls on Planes, and it’s No Government’s Business

While many netizens around the world are taking a stand on overzealous surveillance today, the United States Congress took a baby step towards a draconian limitation of personal and business freedom. Ironically, the bill in question has been introduced by a Republican, the party branding itself as champions of individual liberty and free enterprise, although Democratic legislators have similar bills in the hopper.
If passed, the bill would ban the use of cell phones on planes for the purposes of making calls.
The move comes after the FCC announced a relaxation of the rules governing portable devices on aircraft.
I’ve been a frequent traveler over the years, clocking up more hours in the air than I care to calculate. This proposed legislation is bad law.

A Government has an essential role to play to facilitate equality of opportunity, promote safety, and a range of other critical functions, but I can see no justifiable reason for interfering with what is really a matter of provider and customer choice. No one is in mortal danger, or at risk of being exploited, or permanently harmed, if someone makes a phone, FaceTime, or Skype call on a plane. I hope that the law, if passed, will end up before the Supreme Court as a First Amendment breach. The technology is legal, free speech is legal.

Some feel that cell phone calls on planes are unacceptably intrusive, and I’ll come back to that argument in a bit. But there are many practices that some people may find annoying that the Government has no business preventing.
I am personally annoyed by people who, completely unsolicited, stop me in the street and try to convert me to their particular faith. But they’re entitled to their freedom of speech and as long as I’m able to disengage myself and go on my merry way without undue harassment, they’re within their rights.
As someone with a hearing impairment, I find it obnoxious to end up at a restaurant for a nice meal with friends or a business meeting, only to find that the loud music, high ceiling and wooden floors have turned the place into an echo chamber and it’s impossible for me to carry on a conversation. It’s noise pollution, as far as I’m concerned, but market forces take care of the problem. I now look at reviews that make reference to noise levels. I even call ahead and ask how noisy the restaurant is, quizzing them about whether they have background music and how loud it is, and what the surface of the floor is like. Then I spend my money where I feel I’m likely to get the best experience.
Those loud restaurants? Well, a lot of people frequent them, proving that the preferences of consumers are wide and varied, and that the market will provide for all preferences.
When this debate began, the CEO of Delta in the United States was adamant that he wouldn’t be allowing calls on planes, and he got a lot of support for that position. Good for him. He made a decision that he believes was in the interests of his bottom line by doing something he thought customers would support.
But my reaction was, I will never, ever fly Delta again under any circumstances. There are those of us who want to use cell phones for voice communication on planes, and have no objection to being next to someone else who does. We have money to spend too. An airline should be able to make that call, if you’ll pardon the expression. If an airline wants to brand itself around letting you talk away to your heart’s content, what business does any government have intervening in such a matter? If the number of people wanting to talk is tiny, no one will offer the service and the market will have sorted the problem.
I’ve travelled on many flights, a lot of them 13 hours long, a few even longer. I’ve been seated next to couples who have chatted away peaceably but audibly, in some cases quite loudly even just in casual conversation. I’ve sat close to couples arguing bitterly, which was strangely enthralling I regret to say.
As someone who has frequently travelled alone, I’ve found myself in a seat surrounded on the seats beside, in front of, and behind me, by some group touring together, all talking loud enough so they can hear each other.
I’ve sat close to babies who did a lot of crying right throughout the trip.
Conversely, I have fairly frequently taken bus trips around New Zealand, many lasting three to four hours, a few lasting eight or nine. People used their cell phones regularly, and that didn’t bother me at all. I used mine too.
While I enjoy getting to know people on planes, and I’ve actually made some great contacts that way, sometimes you just want to spend that long time your way, chatting with your significant other, catching up with your family, or just hanging out virtually with friends.
I certainly respect people’s desire not to have their space invaded by people talking loudly, but people will talk loudly, cell phones or not. Nevertheless, if we must single out cell phone talkers during this initial phase, you could have parts of the plane designated cell phone zones.

Or here’s an interesting idea! Maybe there’s actually a real branding opportunity here. Have a part of the cabin where almost total silence is enforced, and call it Meditation Class.
People claim that the issue is that people tend to talk much louder on cell phones. I think this is often true on the ground, but in the air there is already a lot of ambient noise from the aircraft. That constant noise is far more intrusive. If certain people really are loud, there’s no harm in them being asked if they would mind keeping it down a bit.
One of the best flights I had was all the way back in 2006, from the US to Frankfurt. Boeing were experimenting with Wi-Fi even then, and I was able to use Skype on that long flight to chat to family and friends. It was fantastic and the time flew by. Just as anyone should have the right to patronise an airline that doesn’t offer such a feature, I have the right to patronise one that does, and the airlines should not be restricted from offering it in a free market.
If Congress ends up passing this tyrannical law, they will have made the wrong call.

2 Comments

  1. Bonnie

    I love the idea of meditation class. Many commuterrail systems and Amtrakhave quiet cars for those not wishing to hear or make voice calls. A

  2. Bruce Toews

    After giving a great deal of thought to both sides of this argument, I have to come down against you on this one. I think that,b y and large, people who insist on being connected even in mid-flight may have too much of a sense of their own vitalness in the world. On the other hand, hearing the one-way, often-shouted blather of a cellphone conversation, in an already-stressful travel environment, just makes a difficult experience worse. And you can’t put these calls on the same level as crying children and other inconveniences. If u (the generic you) are so important that the world as we know it will fall apart if you turn your phone off for a few hours, you can probably afford a private jet and bellow to your heart’s content as you keep the earth in its trajectory.

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