Cell phones on planes? Talk about grating

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The news that plane passengers might soon be able to use their cell phones in flight is the most welcome news I've heard since a dentist explained my pending root canal treatment.

Modern flight is already a horror show. From the casual indignities of removing your shoes, belt, coat, rings and whatever is in your pockets at the first gate, to the cattle call at the last one -- "Now boarding Zone 1 passengers only; stay back you Zone 4 peons!'' -- air travel has become about as glamorous as the neighborhood soup kitchen.

OK, that's a little unfair. The average soup kitchen serves better food in larger portions. But there is one aspect of flight that remains quite pleasant: that time when you're airborne, leaning back the millimeter or so they allow in the seatback position, and all is blissfully quiet. Yet now, like a line from a bad western, the Federal Communications Commission is essentially saying, "Yeah, it's quiet. Too quiet."

At its Dec. 12 meeting, the FCC intends to vote on whether to allow airline passengers to make voice calls using their mobile phones while flying miles above the Earth.

Already, many are trying to stop this idea from leaving the runway. A computer search turned up numerous stories since the FCC released its ominous agenda in an email last week. The negative blowback includes a HuffPost/YouGov.poll that found 49 percent would not want cell conversations allowed on planes, while 31 percent would.

A third of the people annoying half the people -- that sounds accurate. Not surprisingly, the more frequent the flyers, the more likely they want cell phone jabberers silenced.

Fortunately, nothing would force an airline to allow cell phone use if the 22-year-old ban is lifted. Already, Delta Airlines has announced it will continue to forbid such calls even if the feds lift the ban. Expect other airlines to also keep their fingers on the mute button. It would be nice if the free market handled this and responded to the wishes of the preponderance of paying customers who do not appreciate in-air turbulence from the next seat.

Some of us in the old crank community aren't waiting, though. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a 73-year-old Republican from Tennessee, said this week he'd introduce legislation to keep the FCC from allowing the calls during flights.

Mr. Alexander spoke for many when he warned of millions of passengers "hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch wide seats,'' forced to listen to the inane drivel that's already rampant in public spaces.

"Imagine this noise while you travel, restrained by your seatbelt, unable to escape,'' Mr. Alexander said in a press release that is most effectively read in the voice of Rod Serling.

The ban was put there out of fear that the mobile devices could interfere with ground-based communications. It turns out that's not so, but this wouldn't be the first solid tradition that began on a shaky assumption. Thanksgiving itself has us celebrating one great meal that white folks shared with the Indians -- and forgetting the centuries of conflict that followed.

Thus I, for one, give thanks today that I never have to hear on a plane the halves of conversations I sometimes endure on the bus: "So, I says to him, I says listen. I says, I've had it with your ... Honest to God, said it right to his face. Ginny was there. She'll tell you ..."

I humbly pray to Saint Bona of Pisa, the patron saint of flight attendants, that airlines voluntarily choose to keep their bans on miles-high jabber. If not, I'd suggest a compromise: Passengers would be allowed to make calls only if the majority of their peers approve.

It could go something like this;

Senior flight attendant: "Attention, passengers, a passenger in Row 15 has requested to use her cell phone to call her BFF and discuss last night's episode of '2 Broke Girls'. Please press the appropriate electronic button on the seatback ballot in front of you.

"I'm sorry, Passenger 15C, but 83 percent of your fellow passengers have pressed 'way too stupid a reason to use a smartphone.'"

Happy Thanksgiving, gentle reader, and may the conversation at your holiday table be warm, witty and wise.


Brian O'Neill:boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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