Friday, July 08, 2005

Talkin' on a Jet Plane

"I don't know when I'll get a signal again"

     With apologies to Peter, Paul, and of course, Mary, I want to talk about cellphones in the sky. That is, the communications revolution that's sweeping the nation. (No, I'm not drunk, but it's Friday afternoon and it has about the same effect) Despite what some haters may say, cellphones are absolutely remarkable. When I got my first cellphone 3 1/2 years ago (so I'm a dinosaur, so what?), I used to stare at the tiny little piece of molded plastic and think about how amazing it was that I could sit in the middle of a field and make a phone call as easily as if I were in my own living room. Easier, actually, since I didn't get good cellphone service in my house. That I could call anywhere in the world, and more amazingly, that anyone in the world could call me (not that anyone did) and my phone would ring almost anywhere I would go. It's such a revolutionary concept that almost nobody even imagined it 30 years ago. I love the beginning chapter of Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" how a character had to choose between purchasing a car phone for his business or a self-aware, intelligent, walking, humanoid robot to play nursemaid for his daughter. He could only afford one - they cost about the same. Of course, the book was written in 1940, but my wife's cellphone, which is smaller than the palm of her hand, has 2 color LCD screens, and is more powerful than any computer imagined in 1940 was free (with a 2-year contract). The walking, intelligent robot? The closest we can come so far is George Bush, except we're still working on intelligent. (It's a joke! Lighten up.)
     Anyway, the point is that what we take for granted now was beyond comprehension when our parents were young. Its impact on our lives has been immeasurable. For example, in the old days (1999), if I was meeting friends at an open-air concert, I'd have to be very careful to specify where and when I'd meet them. If someone was late or got lost in the crowd, well, good luck finding everyone else. If you couldn't make it because your car broke down? Your friends might be waiting all night. And as far as the car breaking down goes, we have much better peace of mind that we'll be able to summon help when we need it. In the old days, my mother insisted that if I flew into a city where I had family, I had to give them a call to let them know I was in town, even if I was just connecting to a flight or could otherwise not see them. Phone calls are expensive, you know. Today, it doesn't even make sense (although she still asked me if I called so-and-so when I landed in Boston on my way to Maine). I mean, not only is the call free, I don't even know that when the person picks up, they're still in the same city I am. Imagine, in 1985, calling someone on the phone and asking them, "Where are you?"
     There are downsides to this new technology. People blame it for being on call 24 hours a day, for hearing people talking loudly in the grocery store, for people having conversations during a movie. But these rudenesses aren't the phones' fault. They're the fault of people, who seem to forget that certain evil bosses had 24-hour contact policies in the pager days. That there are always rude and thoughtless people in the grocery stores and movie theaters.
     In December, the FCC announced that it may relax restrictions on cellphone use on airplanes. They had banned them because of concerns of interference with ground-based communications, as well as airplane communications. Finding that such interference did not exist and that cellphone use may very well have saved the White House from the fate of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the FCC may soon say that airlines will have the right to decide whether their passengers may use the devices.
     But wouldn't you know, busybodies are bombarding the FCC, demanding that cellphones remain banned from planes. These may or may not be the same people who keep the FCC on speed dial during the Super Bowl commercials, but their opinion is that since they expect quiet on a plane, they want the government to mandate it. It's a ridiculous argument. If an airline wants to keep phones off their planes, they have the right to demand it. But without any health or safety reason to ban them, how can anyone possibly justify the FCC or FAA doing such a thing? Jay Bookman, an otherwise reasonable columnist, opines, "In other words, we know without a doubt that allowing cellphone use in airline cabins would be a disaster.". A disaster? Sitting on a flying bus with people talking is a disaster? If you ban cellphones merely because they inconvenience some people (while conveniencing others), why not ask the FAA to ban children from flying? Or talking? On my redeye flight home from Vegas this past Monday night, I was trying to sleep and the guy across the aisle had his personal light on so he could read a book. Should I petition the FAA to ban lights on nighttime flights? (hmm, that rhymes...) Smoking - that's a health concern, OK. Fireworks and knives and lighters - those are safety concerns, check. Smacking the flight attendant on the rump - harassment concern, plus the flight attendant is more likely to be a middle-aged gay guy nowadays. Don't ask the government to restrict freedoms for your personal peace of mind, though. This goes for phones on planes, but also for flag-burning, for consensual sex between adults, and for anything else that people are trying to get their government to ban in the name of "Because I Said So".


Anonymous said...

oh, I don't know. I can see a complete case of trapped-in-a-tube rage when some obnoxious yokel feels the need to scream into his cell phone because he's convinced that if he doesn't yell the person on the other end of the call can't hear him. In flight fights could be a safety concern.

Not that I'm saying the FAA/FCC has any right to ban the cell phones, because they don't. However, the airlines do have that discretion and I'm quite content to not use my cell phone for duration of the flight.

Mike said...

I'm afraid I have to come down on the side of leaving the ban in place. I have two reasons.

One, I have seen first hand the effect cell phones in close proximity can have on delicate electronic equipment. I've seen a cell phone make an electronic device go haywire. So I have serious safety concerns.

Two, cell phones annoy me. Call me a prude, whatever. I just don't want to have to sit next to you for two hours listening to you close the deal or chew out your employee or discuss your vacation plans with your wife. I'm cramped in a tiny seat like a sardine and I don't want to hear it.

If they can validate that cell phones have no adverse safety effects on the plane, I open to sectioning off the plane into cell phone and no cell phone areas. Like trains that have quiet cars for commuters.

Scott said...

But how can you, a small-government conservative, in good conscience say that it's the federal government's job to put restrictions on other people to keep you from being annoyed? Isn't that, like Anonymous said, the job of the airline?

Mike said...

I don't. It's the government's job to make sure cell phones are safe. After that it's up to the airlines to decide.

If you're in favor of relaxing the restrictions, how about giving the FCC and the Administration a little love instead of attacking the people trying to keep the restrictions in place? Would it kill you to say you like something the Administration is doing?

ignerens said...

Consensual sex should never be banned from airplanes, especially by the FCC.

Ben said...

You're not taking mental health in to consideration, though that's not an arguement I would accept. Some people will make the case that cell phone use on airplanes destroys our peace of mind, and thus is bad for health, and they have a point in our over-stressed society. That said, I don't think the government should make a law against it. Airlines ought to realize that they create more anger than goodwill by allowing cellphone use.

Mike said...

I almost said something along those lines, Ben. The argument could be made that cell phones are noise pollution. Maybe GreenPeace would get all over it. Many small towns have ordinances against loud vehicles, music, and industry. If someone could make the case that cell phones are detrimental to their health, (i.e.-headaches, loss of sleep, nervous tension, ear cancer, etc.) it could conceivably get some momentum from some people.

But for me, as long as cell phones are safe I don't care. But airlines that offered "quiet flights" or "quiet sections" would be more likely to get my business. It would be interesting to see if airlines would charge more for the "quiet section" or the "cell phone" section.

Ben said...

I do think they should charge more for large people. I had an international flight back from Israel once, and I was against the window with a rather large woman next to me. She spilled over both above and below the armrest in to my seat and it made the flight MISERABLE to me. If you can't fit in to one seat area, then you ought to pay for more than one seat. I paid the same as everyone else, yet got far less space than most.

Sylvana said...

I'm torn on this one, but I think in the end I would have to say that I think that they should not be able to use them on the flights. I have far too often sat next to someone on their cell phone yelling into it and being completely oblivious that they are not alone. Also, I'm not entirely convinced that they do not cause interference, so I say, better to be safe than sorry.

Mike said...

Sylvania, and you know if they allowed people to talk on their phones in the air that's all they would do. Everyone would be on their phones because there is nothing else to do for 2 hours at 30,000 ft. And of course you would have to shout to talk over the guy next to you shouting into his phone. It would be a nightmare.

midwest_hick said...

I'm frankly tired of watching people walking around aimlessly with a phone stuck to their ear. No one is that damn important....and why have one? your mother can call ya to bring home a loaf of bread she's too lazy to get herself?...Or the kids who can't think of anything better to do but call someone......over and over on a daily ask 'Whatcha doing...or I'm so bored.'

ORF said...

First of all, people have always been able to use telephones on airplanes as most are equipped with those spiffy headrest phones. It's just a matter of wanting to spend $10 a minute making the call.

Secondly, I once spent the better part of a flight from NY to LA listening to an extremely loud man bless out some woman named Julia on one of those seat phones and it was very uncomfortable. He cursed and screamed at her and I not only felt embarassed for him at his behavior, but embarassed for poor Julia who was not only on the receiving end of it, but probably had little idea that this man was so publicly shaming her. Also,it was just plain irritating.

I don't see why the government would have to put a mandate like this in place. Airlines are entitled to make their own rules. Certainly, most of the current comportment on commercial airline flights is based on FAA guidelines, but I'll bet the FAA doesn't say anything about whether or not the airline will serve you the entire tiny can of soda. Rather, it's a policy of the airline itself.

Part of my subway commute is above ground and it irritates the pants off of me when people whip out their phones to start jawing away once we're above ground. I cannot thank the MTA enough for refusing to wire the subway tunnels for service like they have in DC and other large cities. There is something to be said in defense of preserving the peace when confined to a finfite space with (im)perfect strangers.

Sylvana said...

Mike- that is so true. People will walk around endlessly with their cell phone glued to their ear talking about NOTHING! And I know it's nothing because I can hear EVERYTHING they are saying!