Cellphones on planes? Tap, don’t talk

Cellphones on planes? Tap, don’t talk
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Modern technology has helped to make Americans more accessible and productive than ever. In particular, the advent of the smartphone has virtually ensured that no matter where we go, no matter the time, we can make a business call or talk to our friends and family. For those of us who still remember rotary phones this innovation is truly extraordinary. By and large, such technological developments have been a benefit to our society and our economy.

However, a byproduct of this development is that our personal and professional interactions have been thrust further into the public arena. We frequently find ourselves unwilling spectators to what were once private conversations. Today, when we go out to eat, jump in an elevator, or just walk down the street, we commonly run into other people who are talking on the phone. Usually, when we find ourselves forced to eavesdrop on a phone conversation that’s too loud, too close, or too personal, we can just walk away.

However, for an airline passenger, walking away is not an option. When flying at 30,000 feet, there’s nowhere else to go.

That is why I introduced bipartisan legislation, the “Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act of 2013” (H.R. 3676), to ensure that cellphone voice communications continue to stay out of the airplane cabin on U.S. domestic flights.

My message is simple when it comes to cellphones on planes: tap, don’t talk.

I strongly believe that allowing passengers to continue using their phones and tablets to get online, text, or send emails is a useful in-flight option. Under my bill, passengers can stay connected – they can still get work done, communicate with friends and colleagues, or check social media. The legislation also takes into account that cell phone calls may be necessary in certain instances. It includes an exemption for on-duty members of the flight crew and flight attendants, and on-duty federal law enforcement personnel.

Recently the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began the process to lift their long-standing ban on in-flight cell phone calls. The FCC’s job is to determine whether such a ban is justified on a purely technological basis, but they are not a transportation regulation agency. That is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Transportation. And while DOT has begun to seek public comments on banning in-flight calls, the federal rule-making process is a time-consuming process. Americans support enacting this policy by a wide margin, and Congress should move forward now. A recent AP poll found that 78 percent of frequent fliers oppose allowing in-flight phone calls.

Airplane cabins are by nature loud, crowded, and confined. For the most part, passengers prefer that their flights go by as quickly and quietly as possible, while pilots and flight attendants are focused on ensuring a safe and comfortable flight for everyone onboard.

Specifically, the Association of Flight Attendants, the world’s largest union of flight attendants, has noted that passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating negative effects on aviation safety and security.

As a conservative Republican, I fundamentally believe in limited government and common sense. Government has created a potential nightmare for the travelling public with the recent FCC actions. Congress has the opportunity to swiftly step in and put this issue to rest. That’s why tomorrow, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which I chair, will take up this bill and decide whether to send it on to the full House of Representatives for a vote.

In today’s world, enriched as it is by technology, we are bombarded by data, opinions, and potential distractions. Few limits to this flow of information are necessary, partly because people can typically turn it off, disconnect from it, or go elsewhere if they choose. But in the close confines of an airplane cabin – where passengers will still be able to use their mobile devices for texting, emailing, working, and more – there is no chance to opt out.

So for those few hours of flight spent with 150 strangers, we can all wait to make that phone call. It’s just common sense and common courtesy.

Shuster has represented Pennsylvania's 9th Congressional District since 2001. He sits on the Armed Services Committee and is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.