Cellphone use on planes? The public says no
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Should air travelers be allowed to use cellphones in flight?
The government asked. Passengers answered with an overwhelming: "Nooooo!"
"Absolutely not!" passenger Karen Jablonski wrote to federal regulators. "It's bad enough to listen to everyone's conversation in restaurants, on trains, while shopping. ... In all of these situations, you can get up and move away. That's not possible on a plane."
Last week, the public comment period closed on what has become one of the most emotional air-travel issues of the day.
Two federal agencies say there's no longer a technical reason to ban the use of cellphones in the air, and are considering whether to lift or modify the ban. They asked for public input.
In 1,760 responses, passengers offered comments that were pleading, pained and personal, offering a glimpse into the tensions of civility, technology and the realities of air travel.
"People don't seem to be able to speak quietly on their phones," wrote passenger George Phillips to the Department of Transportation. "Just imagine the sound created in the confined space of an airplane cabin. Please, please, please do not allow this."
Wrote passenger William Thorn: "I do not want to be forced to listen to medical issues, HR problems in the office, strategies for selling a reluctant customer, intimate details of romantic relationships and other conversational content ... "
Added passenger John Powell: "This would be funny if it were a Monty Python episode, but as a serious proposal, it is utterly baffling."
The Federal Communications Commission is discussing whether to give airlines the power to decide the cellphone-in-flight rule for themselves, rather than keeping the government's ban.
Some airlines, including United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, don't want to open that path.
"Our frequent fliers believe voice calls in the cabin would be a disruption to the travel experience," Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in December. He added, "Delta employees, particularly our in-flight crews, have told us definitely that they are not in favor of voice calls onboard."
Others see it differently, arguing it's an issue for the marketplace to decide, not the government.
Spirit Airlines, the Florida-based low-cost carrier that began flying from MSP in 2012, last week wrote that the decision "should be left to the discretion of each individual airline."
Still, Spirit's attorney conceded, "Public opinion clearly favors a ban on voice calls. Few if any rulemakings have attracted such a public response."
Among the hundreds of comments, a few favored in-flight calls. Some foreign airlines already allow it.
"The benefits of communication, particularly in a situation where one has a family emergency at home or urgent situation at work, far outweigh the issue of annoying other passengers," wrote passenger Steve Leser. "I think the rule should be that flight attendants should be able to tell passengers to turn off their phones, if it is becoming a nuisance."
Yet flight attendants don't want to play referee for a planeful of quarreling passengers.
"A change in the cellphone policy will likely result in a spike of confrontations among passengers, which puts all passengers and crew needlessly at risk," the group representing American Airlines flight attendants wrote last week. "Instance of 'air rage' have steadily increased over the past several years," and rose 10 percent in 2013.
A government survey from 2007 showed that a slight majority of younger passengers do support the use of phones in flight, while older fliers are strongly opposed.
Some commenters did offer a compromise that younger passengers might appreciate: Why not allow texting during flights? Even Delta likes that idea.
Delta CEO Anderson said if the texting ban is lifted, "Delta will move quickly to enable customers to use text, email and other silent data transmission services gate to gate."
Meanwhile, the debate has already drawn the attention of Congress, which is considering bills that would keep the ban in place permanently.
"Keeping phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense," wrote Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.