Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Keep cell phone calls off planes

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:35 AM EST, Sun February 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: House committee OK'd bill to ban in-flight cell phone calls. This is good news
  • He says poll shows most people against voice calls on planes; Congress seems to get this
  • Passengers might be trapped on flight with noisy callers; chaos could easily ensue
  • Greene: Pols knows if that occurs, fliers will blame them; they should ensure ban happens

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen," which has been named the One Book, One Nebraska statewide reading selection for 2014.

(CNN) -- The people have spoken.

Which, come to think of it, is where this whole problem started.

In Congress last week, a House committee passed without opposition a measure that should allow the nation to breathe a grateful sigh of relief.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

The Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved a bill to prohibit phone calls on all domestic flights.

The measure is on its way to the full House of Representatives; a similar bill is moving through the Senate.

What this means is that the flying public is probably safe from being surrounded by fellow passengers blabbing nonstop on their cell phones from the moment a plane takes off until the moment it lands.

For a while there, it appeared that one of the last bastions of cell phone-free silence -- planes during flight -- was going away.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission announced that, in its view, cell phone use no longer posed a technological threat to navigation and aeronautic safety. Thus, the FCC declared, lifting the longstanding ban on phone calls from planes should be considered.

What the FCC seemed to be ignoring was the hazard cell phones presented not to the electronics that guide an airplane, but to the well-being and peace of mind of passengers confined inside the cabin of a plane with nowhere to flee while rude seatmates incessantly yakked away.

It is, at its core, a matter of consumer protection.

What would you pay to silence cell phones on airplanes?
Feds duel over cell phones on planes

If cell phone voice calls were permitted, flight attendants would be placed in the impossible position of having to referee disputes between passengers who, jammed tightly into their seats on packed planes, argued over telephone etiquette and common courtesy (which is no longer so common at all). Travelers would demand to be moved; when no others seats were available, hand-to-hand combat might break out. On a street or in a public building, you can always walk away from a loud and obnoxious cell phone user. On a plane? Where are you supposed to go?

There is a simple solution to satisfy those who wish to communicate with people on the ground during a flight: Allow text messages, e-mails and social network postings from the air. Engaging in those activities actually calms passengers, soothes their nerves. Voice calls? The opposite.

Which, in a rare spirit of bipartisan wisdom, Congress appears to understand.

The chairman of the House committee that advanced last week's measure, Republican Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, cited a poll that said 59% of Americans who flew at least once last year oppose allowing phone calls on planes, and that among Americans who fly more frequently -- four or more flights a year -- 78% oppose the phone calls.

"Most passengers would like their flights to go by as quickly and quietly as possible," Shuster said.

A Democrat on the committee -- Nick Rahall of West Virginia -- agreed: "The prospect of sitting among dozens of people all talking on their cell phones in a confined space raises serious safety, if not comfort, considerations especially at a time when passengers face less legroom, higher fees and pricey flights."

Rahall said that when the FCC raised the possibility of allowing phone calls on commercial flights, "a chill went through the flying public and flight attendants nationwide."

It's not hard to figure out why members of Congress are willing to take these steps now: It is one of those unusual occasions when they sense they will be applauded by a thankful public. Congress isn't taking anything away from anyone; a new law would merely pre-emptively make sure that no one gets very far with the idea of letting cell phones on flights.

And no member of Congress is likely to be the one to demand that voice calls be made a part of flying. The public tends to connect the results of infuriating political decisions with the government officials who promoted them; any time a booming-voiced, serial-calling passenger ruined the flights of the people around him, the simmering anger would be directed at the politicians who had made that possible.

Congress, by moving to prohibit inflight calls, is doing the airlines a favor. As with smoking onboard, it takes the decision out of the individual airlines' hands, so flight crews won't have to negotiate with enraged passengers. And, absent clear-cut rules, if one airline did choose to permit phone calls in the air, you can imagine the television commercials that its competitors would run in an effort to put it out of business:

An opening shot of a cabin full of passengers shouting into their phones, yelling "Can you hear me?", telling longwinded jokes and laughing at top volume, barking orders at business subordinates back at the office, braying "You're fading in and out-- what did you just say?", giving high-decibel and endlessly detailed recitations of what they had for dinner the night before. A roaring, earsplitting jumble of sound, each passenger with a phone to his or her ear.

And then the next shot in the commercial: A quiet cabin filled with people reading, working on their computers, smiling silently at e-mails and text messages. No sound at all.

Followed by the logo of that second airline, with a come-fly-with-us invitation to travel in a civilized way.

Which of those flights seems preferable?

You make the call.

(On second thought ... don't.)

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT