In-flight cell calls? No way, say lawmakers

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Political momentum to keep a ban on cellphone calls during flights gained momentum Monday as lawmakers said it would be crazy to allow them.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) became the second lawmaker after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to offer legislation to keep the ban in place.

“Let’s face it, airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined,” said Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.”

The bills follow a flood of complaints to the Federal Communications Commission, which announced last month that it would look into ending the ban.

For years, the use of many electronic devices on flights has been banned for fear they could interfere with navigation systems. But the FAA earlier this year loosened rules and said passengers would be allowed to send texts and emails from their phones during flights.

Now the FCC is looking into whether the ban on the use of cellphones is needed for safety reasons.

Lawmakers in favor of keeping the ban say they’re not worried about the safety of passengers. They’re worried about their sanity.

“For passengers, being able to use their phones and tablets to get online or send text messages is a useful in-flight option,” Shuster said. “But if passengers are going to be forced to listen to the gossip in the aisle seat, it’s going to make for a very long flight.”

Shuster and Alexander, who both face primary challenges in 2014, say they are responding to popular opinion.

“Imagine two million passengers, hurtling through space, trapped in 17-inch-wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts,” Alexander said last week in a statement. “The Transportation Security Administration would have to hire three times as many air marshals to deal with the fistfights.”

“Stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies from those who wander around shouting personal details into a microphone: babbling about last night’s love life, bathroom plans, next week’s schedule, orders to an assistant, arguments with spouses,” Alexander said.

“Imagine this noise while you travel, restrained by your seatbelt, unable to escape,” the senator continued. “The FCC commissioners will earn the gratitude of the two million Americans who fly each day by deciding: text messages, yes; conversations, no.”

The FCC is considering whether to lift the ban purely on safety issues — specifically whether cellphones interfere with airplane systems.

It has suggested it is not interested in policing passenger behavior and has said it would be up to individual airlines to decide whether to allow calls.

The agency is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to move ahead and begin accepting public comments on the proposal.

Groups representing flight attendants and airline pilots have weighed in against allowing the use of cell phones on plans.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), a union for flight attendants based in Washington, said it supports Shuster’s bill. A spokesman for the union told The Hill that the group is a “vocal opponent of cellphone use for voice calls on planes.”

“Passengers overwhelmingly reject cellphone use in the aircraft cabin. The FCC should not proceed with this proposal,” the union said when the FCC first began reviewing its rules for cellphone calls on flights.

“Flight Attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment,” the union statement continued. “Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe.”

This story was updated at 8:39 p.m.

Brendan Sasso contributed.