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Martin Dyckman: Allowing chatterboxes at 30,000 feet is a very bad idea

 Waiting for a flight from Tallahassee to Orlando some years ago, I was introduced to the private life of a young woman sitting a few rows distant.

So was everyone else in earshot.

Changing seats was not an option. Her voice was loud and clear and had carrying power.

We learned about her recent vacation, her tenuous relations with her mother, and her forthcoming wedding and honeymoon.

There were a few mild digs at her fiancé, as I recall, and I waited with voyeuristic fascination for more. But then the flight was called.

Inside the aircraft, the Federal Communications Commission imposed a blessed cone of silence. She had to put the cell phone away.

There are a great many more cell phones now, and that many more people who can’t be parted from them, even for a moment, without exhibiting clinical withdrawal symptoms.

And, like their prototype in the Tallahassee departure lounge, they don’t seem to know or care who might be listening.

Or who might be annoyed.

Imagine, now, an aircraft cabin packed shoulder to shoulder with chatterboxes like her, and you have a clear view of the horror that the FCC may be about to let loose on the world.

That’s right. The agency is reconsidering its ban on cell phone use in flight, since there no longer appear to be technological reasons — if ever there were any — why it might interfere with safety.

Interfering with sanity is another matter, but it seems to be beyond the purview of the FCC.

The Association of Flight Attendants — bless them — is urging the FCC against making the change. Safety, the union reasons, is more than a matter of mere electronic interference. It also requires calm in the cabin.

“Any situation that is loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe,” the union statement said. “Many polls and surveys conducted over the years find that a vast majority of the traveling public wants to keep the ban on voice calls in the aircraft cabin.

“In far too many operational scenarios, passengers making phone calls could extend beyond a mere nuisance, creating negative effects on aviation safety and security that are great and far too risky.”

And even if some passengers weren’t punching others out, or trying to stuff the gadgets down their throats, a planeload of chattering people might be oblivious to announcements and distracted from “life-saving instructions from the crew.”

I don’t have a good feeling for the outcome. The airlines may be seeing this as yet another profit opportunity.

And why not?

With one exception, they already charge for checked baggage, and charge more if you don’t pay in advance. Some even charge for any carry-on bag larger than a purse. Then there are charges to purchase tickets on line or by phone, for less constricted spacious coach seating, and even to reserve a seat. Free snacks have given way to overpriced bag lunches.

One European airline toyed with charging to use the lavatory before putting that idea on hold. I don’t think we’ve heard the end of it.

The sole moment of levity in the musical “Les Miserables” comes when the dissolute innkeeper, Thénardier, sings of charging guests extra for the lice, for the mice, for “looking in the mirror twice,” and even “three percent for sleeping with the window shut.”

The airlines, it would seem, see that as an exemplary business plan.

How might they charge now to use one’s own cell phone?

The simplest way would be to designate sections where you would pay more for the privilege.

Or worse, where you would pay more so as NOT to sit among the chattering classes.

Leaving aside the mendacity of either scheme, segregating cabin sections wouldn’t work any better than the division between smoking and non-smoking seating used to.

The people sitting nearest the cell phone section would still be annoyed. People tend to talk too loudly on cell phones even on the ground. Add to that the background noise on an aircraft, and they’ll be shouting.

If the FCC feels that it simply must accommodate today’s wired generation, allowing texting in flight should suffice.

But to allow voice messaging in a cramped, closed cabin environment is an idea whose time has not arrived, and never should.

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