Congress Moves to Ban In-Flight Cell Calls, Blowhards at 30,000 Feet

from the that-guy-in-seat-17C-simply-won't-shut-up dept

For many, many years electronics were banned during take off and landing and below 10,000 feet, purportedly to protect avionics from possible interference -- even if evidence of this interference threat was -- for the vast majority of devices -- non-existent. While it took years of tests followed by even more years of bumbling bureaucratic stumbling and repeated recommendations, back in October the FAA announced they were easing restrictions on in-flight electronics rules, allowing the use of things like e-readers during all phases of a flight. If you've flown since you've probably noticed the changes, even if flight attendants remain occasionally confused about the magical plane-crash protecting abilities of your iPad's airplane mode.

Last month FCC boss Tom Wheeler then took things further by proposing to eliminate the FCC ban on in-flight cellular phone calls (see the FCC FAQ), and the FCC is still fielding comments on the rule changes (mostly negative). While Wheeler and the FCC took a lot of grief from consumers annoyed that they'll be inundated with chatty cathys at 30,000 feet, Wheeler rather correctly argued that with tests showing no interference, the FCC's role as a technical regulator was complete, and it would be up to the FAA, Congress or the airlines to institute new guidelines protecting you from that annoying chatterbox in 17C:
“I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission… Technology has produced a new network reality recognized by governments and airlines around the world. Our responsibility is to recognize that new reality’s impact on our old rules."
Since then, the Department of Transportation has hinted that they might create new rules, and the CEO of Delta has tried to win consumer brownie points by issuing a public letter stating they'll never allow in-flight phone conversations. Fast forward to this week, and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a bill (HR3676, pdf) banning in-flight cellular (or VoIP) calls. House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) insists it's "common sense" to keep in-flight calls off limits:
"In our day-to-day lives, when we find someone’s cell phone call to be too loud, too close, or too personal, we can just walk away," he said. "But at 30,000 feet, there’s nowhere else for an airline passenger to go. Under this bill, passengers will be able to use their mobile devices to stay connected, through getting online, emailing, texting, and more. During flights, it is common sense and common courtesy to continue keeping cell phone calls on the ground."
Even if by some strange chance Congress can't work together to pass a bill (there's a similar bill winding its way through the Senate), there's a good chance that in-flight calls could be so expensive as to be of limited appeal (remember $5 per minute calls via Airfone?). While some airlines could follow Delta's lead and step in to block phone calls, it seems like only a matter of time before an airline comes up with the "innovative" idea to charge a fee if users want to sit in the soundproofed section of the aircraft.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    radarmonkey (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 4:58pm

    Seat selection:

    "Would you like talking, or non-talking?"

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 5:13pm

    I also dot like it when people are chatting on their phone 5 feet from me when Im trying to order my cheese burgers at MacDonalds!!!!!

    Next logical step is to ban talking on phones anywhere where it might annoy someone -_-

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    Spaceman Spiff (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 5:18pm

    What about those inplane phones that were common in the '90s?

    You could use those phones that were embedded in the back of the seat in front of you to make calls anywhere. What's the difference, other than you are using your own handset?

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    zip, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 5:21pm

    Techdirt readers should feel lucky that when author Karl Bode writes two different articles on the same topic on the same day, Techdirt gets the better one!

    One thing I don't quite understand ... what's wrong with posting the same article on both Techdirt and DSLReports instead of having to write it twice?

    Anyway, it's good to see someone I've enjoyed reading for many years joining the Techdirt staff.

     

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  5.  
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    radarmonkey (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 5:31pm

    Re: What about those inplane phones that were common in the '90s?

    The difference is $5 per minute.

    If something is (essentially) free, people are more likely to do it than if they have to pay a considerable cost.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    W Klink (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 5:31pm

    Re: What about those inplane phones that were common in the '90s?

    You can still use those phones: "`(B) LIMITATION- The term `mobile communications device' does not include a phone installed on an aircraft.'." -- Bill Text

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 6:25pm

    So.. where do they draw the line?

    Clearly, they can't ban talking on the plane... will they ban recording your own voice?

    For planes with wifi, can I record my voice and email it to someone? Can I listen to an audio file emailed back to me?

    Can I Skype? Can I have a video chat without audio?

     

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  8.  
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    silverscarcat (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 6:44pm

    Re: So.. where do they draw the line?

    Shhh! Don't give them ideas!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    Christopher (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 6:45pm

    As soon as someone challenges this law

    It will be thrown out by the Supreme Court. These idiots need to realize that banning something just because of a personal dislike for it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL!

    It's not going to get past the Supreme Court and probably most lower courts, period and done with.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 6:48pm

    Re: Seat selection:

    Who ever invents a "Cone of Silence" like service will be awarded "one MILLion dollars".

     

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  11.  
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    Christopher (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 6:51pm

    Re:

    Or talking anywhere period.... which is going to be a non-starter in the real world. The fact is that, contrary to popular belief, most people do not speak any louder into a phone than they do talking to a person beside them.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 7:46pm

    This is a stupid proposed law. Let the airlines handle it.

    A person could, under this law, still legally talk while pretending to hold a phone to their ear. So you aren't really even legislating away the "problem" of people not wanting to hear other people talk.

    And I love the cop-out of the law merely telling an agency that THEY have to make a rule prohibiting it. Is the bill's author conceding that he is incapable of writing the law himself?

     

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  13.  
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    Nick-B, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 8:07pm

    I don't think this is a thing for congress. Treat it like a movie theater, leave it up to the airlines to decide if phone calls are allowed or not and when.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 8:09pm

    Re: As soon as someone challenges this law

    Is it unconstitutional? Although it's a restriction on speech, it's clearly a content-neutral one. I think those get a four-part test:

    1. Does the regulation serve an important governmental interest?
    2. Is the government interest served by the regulation unrelated to the suppression of a particular message?
    3. Is the regulation narrowly tailored to serve the government's interest?
    4. Does the regulation leave open ample alternative means for communicating messages?

    Pretty sure the law would pass parts 2, 3, and 4. They aren't trying to suppress a particular message, it's narrowly tailored (only voice communications), and it allows alternative means for communication.

    I'm not convinced it passes part 1. Where's the important governmental interest? "Preventing planes from crashing" clearly was one. "Preventing passengers from being mildly annoyed, even if the airline wants to allow calls" doesn't seem like it reaches that level. An airplane is a nonpublic forum, so that lowers the bar on what regulation is allowed, but even then I don't think this is justified.

     

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  15.  
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    Wally (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 8:27pm

    I actually somehow find this reasonable...on some of Delta's smaller aircraft...you can hear people across the cabin breathing on overnight flights...It isn't a call to ban the use of electronic devices...just on cell phone calls.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 8:58pm

    Re:

    So, you're saying they should also ban people from talking to each other?

    Am I not allowed to talk with someone that flies with me?

     

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  17.  
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    sorrykb (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 9:22pm

    Re:

    Nick-B wrote:
    Treat it like a movie theater

    So... (depending on airline policy) Kick people out of the plane for using their cell phone?

     

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  18.  
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    sorrykb (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 9:23pm

    Re: Re:

    I think he was suggesting banning people from breathing, at least on smaller aircraft.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    Wally (profile), Feb 12th, 2014 @ 9:58pm

    Re: Re:

    Like watching a movie in a theater in the 1930's...flying is an event...you don't yammer away on a cell phone...you enjoy the flight...There's always something to see.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 12th, 2014 @ 10:06pm

    Re: Re:

    Yes. But only 1st class get parachutes

     

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  21.  
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    HegemonicDistortion (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 12:57am

    Re: Re: As soon as someone challenges this law

    This applies to restrictions on speech though, not the use of a device. One could argue that you have all of your free speech rights intact on the plane because you could say whatever you wanted (that didn't constitute a threat or whatever).

    I'm just not sure court would be willing to say, as a matter of constitutional principle, that you have a First Amendment right to use your cell phone. Even if it did decide that, the airline could still likely prohibit it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 2:01am

    One problem with banning VoIP, is that only way that would work would to ban laptops. Even if the airline, say, blocks Skype, someone could use a VPN to circumvent that.

    Since business travellers are likely looging onto company VPNs to get work done, blocking VPN is not practical. The only way it will work is to ban all laptop use in flight.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
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    xenomancer (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 3:12am

    Well, thank God that chatty assholes will only come in pairs! At least now they'll only look inconsiderate and not insane.

     

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  24.  
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    Violynne (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 3:40am

    Maybe it's just me, but does anyone here sense a foul smell this is Airfone working the strings behind the scenes?

    What the hell difference is there between someone yakking on a phone built into the damn plane vs. a cell phone?

    I've sat next to people who used those Airphones because it didn't look to me they minded the high rates because "They're on vacation and flying over [location]!"

    Good grief. The stupidity of government knows no bounds.

     

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  25.  
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    That One Guy (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 5:34am

    Re: Re:

    Only if you say 'No ticket' to the other passengers after doing so.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 6:19am

    Should texting be allowed an airplane - or will that result in another homicide?

     

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  27.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 6:28am

    Create First Amendment "zones"...landing gear wheel wells seem like an excellent location. Sound-proofed overhead storage bins may be another. :)

     

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  28.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 6:57am

    Re: Re: What about those inplane phones that were common in the '90s?

    You can still use those phones: "`(B) LIMITATION- The term `mobile communications device' does not include a phone installed on an aircraft.'." -- Bill Text

    Which is why I think this is driven more by the airlines than by end-users. What I hate about this is that it can then be used to prohibit use of cell phones, regardless to whether it is a voice call or a text message with a really annoying ring tone. I've sat on planes where folks were using the in-flight phones and they were just as obnoxious (and from a security perspective, dumb, since they were communicating sensitive data like IP addresses and passwords to log in to the system they were trying to troubleshoot at 30k feet above the earth) as cell phone users.

    Having been on the trains in Japan, there are much better ways of dealing with chatty cathy's on their cell phones.

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 7:17am

    Re: Re: Re: What about those inplane phones that were common in the '90s?

    "Having been on the trains in Japan, there are much better ways of dealing with chatty cathy's on their cell phones."

    I believe it is known as courtesy, a concept that seems here to have fallen into disfavor.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 7:37am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: What about those inplane phones that were common in the '90s?

    I believe it is known as courtesy, a concept that seems here to have fallen into disfavor.

    Having been on trains and public transportation in the US, for the most part, the courtesy still exists. And usually it exists on planes too. However, when you start talking loudly to someone else on a Japanese train, you very quickly find the whole train car staring at you...that is often enough to get you to shut up. Having the flight attendant come over and ask you to keep it down might be enough, and making it a law is overkill.

    There is already too much stuff in the law-books that is poorly enforced and I'd hope by now we'd recognize as a nation that you can't regulate good behavior.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 8:20am

    This is a surprise...

    The FCC used common sense and recognized that it was a place where they didn't belong. Now if we can just get them to realize that regulating content over the airwaves based on the moral judgements of a vocal few that don't understand the concept of separation between church and state, then they will really start to make some progress.

    How is this any business of Congress? We don't need a stupid law for this and Congress shouldn't be wasting money on it trying to tell airlines how to run their business. Since they have finally realized that there are no real safety issues, who are they to tell airlines what they should and should not allow on their flights? The market will take care of that itself. It seems kind of stupid anyway unless they specifically include VOIP services in the law since regular cell phones have to connect to a tower on the ground which likely will have a lot of trouble maintaining a stable connection if at 30,000 feet anyway if it is able to make a connection to a tower at all.

     

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  32.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 8:28am

    Re: Re: Re: As soon as someone challenges this law

    This applies to restrictions on speech though, not the use of a device.


    But the device is used for speech - and indeed, it's actually voice communications that are prohibited, not just the device itself (which can be still used for texting, for example.) And a tax on newspaper ink was once declared unconstitutional because of its effects on speech.

    The loophole allowing the built-in plane phones may prove to be the law's undoing in the end, unless they can provide a reasonable basis as to why those are allowed. What's the difference between someone talking on their cell while standing next to the plane-phone and someone actually talking on the plane-phone? Why should one be legal and one be illegal?

    Even if it did decide that, the airline could still likely prohibit it.


    They sure could, and that's the way this SHOULD be done instead of a federal law.

     

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  33.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 8:39am

    Re: Re: As soon as someone challenges this law

    I believe that there have been many court cases where the court ruled that it's not necessarily a violation of the first amendment to restrict a particular channel for speech, assuming that other equivalent channels still exist.

    However, its' crazy that this is even a topic for legislation at all. If people yapping on cell phones becomes a real problem, the airlines themselves can certainly prohibit that activity. I don't see why legislators have to get involved.

    But I guess it lets them avoid doing work on things that are of actual importance.

     

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  34.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 8:42am

    Re: Re:

    Actually, the way it would work is that if you disobey the flight attendant's instructions to hang up, you would be removed from the plane at the next landing and arrested.

    By law, you must comply with flight attendant's instructions.

     

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  35.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 8:43am

    Re:

    I understand the objection to talking on the phone -- but why does that make it a reasonable subject of legislation?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
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    DannyB (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 8:58am

    Re: So.. where do they draw the line?

    You can listen to an audio file, whether it was already on your device or just emailed to you.

    Just don't do it out loud. Lots of people listen to audio and audio/video content on planes. They just use headphones to do this. (OMG! someone call the RIAA/MPAA to file a lawsuit about this crime! For the artists!)

    Can you record your voice and email it to someone? [on a plane?] I would ask: is your recording device small and flushable?

     

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  37.  
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    DannyB (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 9:01am

    Re: As soon as someone challenges this law

    > It will be thrown out by the Supreme Court.
    > These idiots need to realize that banning something just
    > because of a personal dislike for it is UNCONSTITUTIONAL!


    Yep. We would never ban smoking on a plane.

    It would also be unconstitutional to ban someone from taking your phone and flushing it just because of a personal dislike for it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
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    DannyB (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 9:03am

    Re:

    > Treat it like a movie theater,
    > leave it up to the airlines to decide if phone calls are allowed or not and when.


    The TSA will object to allowing passengers to carry firearms onto aircraft to deal with people using cellphones during flight.

     

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  39.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 9:05am

    Re: Re:

    Exactly. This is not something that the government should be involved in. The market will take care of it itself. Airlines that want to cater to customers that want to talk on the phone should be able to do so and those who want to cater to customers that don't want others talking on the phone should also be able to do so. The government does not need to be wasting taxpayer money on stupid laws that restrict something that really is nothing that they should be concerned about.

    It's similar to the what I have said about the municipal popular ordinances that have recently been passed banning smoking in restaurants and bars. The municipalities should not be in the business of telling local businesses what customers they should cater to or not. If a restaurant or bar owner wants to allow it. It should be the business owner's right to allow it or not.

     

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  40.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 9:12am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "It's similar to the what I have said about the municipal popular ordinances that have recently been passed banning smoking in restaurants and bars"

    I agree totally. I don't smoke, but these laws really piss me off.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 10:33am

    Re: Re: Seat selection:

    I got a pair. They're called noise-cancelling headphones. The electronics dulls out the engines, and the over-the-ear dulls out the background noise.

    I also have a Code Red emergency baby plan, and carry foam earplugs as well. If seated next to an unhappy baby, I go earplugs AND NC headphones, crank my tunes up, and don't hear a thing around me.

    Please, don't bother commenting about "Social isolation". When I go Code Red, that is precisely the objective.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42.  
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    WysiWyg (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 10:54am

    Re: Re: Re: Seat selection:

    Doesn't the earplugs hinder you from hearing the music?

     

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  43.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 12:32pm

    Re: Re: Seat selection:

    What did you say?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 1:03pm

    Get Real

    I agree with FCC. They have performed their tests and found no problems. End of story. The Congress and the FAA have absolutely no business getting involved - there are NO safety issues. It would only provide an "I Did Something" forum for politicians.

    The airlines should set policy to allow or disallow in-flight phone calls. Their bottom line will tell them whether they made the right choice.

    If you ask the young folks of today about it, you'll probably get a lot of vacant stares. "You mean actually TALK on this thing? I only use it for the WEB and for texting. I NEVER talk on it!"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45.  
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    John85851 (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 2:29pm

    Just charge $5 a minute for wifi

    I agree that it's stupid for the government to get involved in an airline-business matter. What's next, Congressional regulation on whether airlines should serve food?

    Let's look at the facts:
    1) "Airfones" and in-flight phones have been common on airplanes since at least the 1970's.
    2) Airfones cost at least $5 a minute.
    3) People will be chatty cathys because their own cell phone gives them cheap or free minutes.
    The obvious answer: set up a $5 per minute wifi system within the airplane. People won't use it because it's expensive and other passengers won't be disturbed.

    And wasn't there an issue with cell phones not being able to connect to towers in an airplane travelling at 35,000 feet and going 500 mph? The $5 per minute wifi also solves this issue.

     

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  46.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 3:27pm

    Re: Just charge $5 a minute for wifi

    How would charging for WiFi address anything? Most people aren't using VoIP rollover, so if they're talking on the phone they're not doing it over WiFi.

    "And wasn't there an issue with cell phones not being able to connect to towers in an airplane travelling at 35,000 feet and going 500 mph?"

    Depends on the phone and where the airplane is. Cell phones work just fine more often than not, especially over populated areas.

     

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  47.  
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    JBDragon, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 3:40pm

    While It would be annoying people yacking on their phones, why is Congress yet once again getting involved to tell a private business what they can and can't do???

    This should be up to the Airlines, PERIOD! Some will allow it and others won't. That's free market in action. If people don't like all the calling, they take the other airline that doesn't allow it. You get enough customers that want it or don't want it, you offer or ban it accordingly. Why the Government has to go BAN it. Because THEY don't like it, is a load of CRAP! They already have their nose is a million other things they have no business in.

     

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  48.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 13th, 2014 @ 3:51pm

    Commercial airlines have phones built into the backs of passenger seats. There's even a slot to swipe your credit card through, in order to use the phone.

    So phones built into the backs of passenger seats are OK, but phones carried on by passengers are not OK. I just don't get it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  49.  
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    btrussell (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 5:14pm

    Re: Re:

    Unless there is someone beside them.

     

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  50.  
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    btrussell (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 5:16pm

    Re: So.. where do they draw the line?

    You can talk all you want so long as those around you can hear both sides of the conversation.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  51.  
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    BernardoVerda (profile), Feb 13th, 2014 @ 8:47pm

    Somehow, I'm recalling that scene from StarTrek IV: The Voyage Home

    There's that scene on the public transit bus, the one where Spock gets the grateful applause of the other bus passengers, when he nerve-pinches the punk with the ghetto-blaster.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr82dZpCr48

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  52.  
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    Sheogorath (profile), Feb 14th, 2014 @ 12:43pm

    Re: Re: As soon as someone challenges this law

    1. Does the regulation serve an important governmental interest?
    Not as far as can be ascertained.
    2. Is the government interest served by the regulation unrelated to the suppression of a particular message?
    There is no government interest, period.
    3. Is the regulation narrowly tailored to serve the government's interest?
    Doubtful. How often do members of the government fly in economy or even business class?
    4. Does the regulation leave open ample alternative means for communicating messages?
    At five bucks a minute? Are you fuckin' kidding me?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 16th, 2014 @ 3:39am

    "No Ticket."

    Thank you for that. You've made my day.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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