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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.

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Companies: delta

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Comments on “Congress Moves to Ban In-Flight Cell Calls, Blowhards at 30,000 Feet”

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Derek Kerton (profile) says:

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.

zip says:

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.

DannyB (profile) says:

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?

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

HegemonicDistortion says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

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.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

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?

DannyB (profile) says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Violynne (profile) says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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!”

John85851 (profile) says:

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.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

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.

JBDragon says:

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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