- - Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Nobody’s going to get any sleep on the red eye to Milwaukee sitting next to a blabbermouth yammering into a plastic box about what he plans to do when he lands. There’s growing sentiment that the federal government must protect passengers from this annoyance. Many, no doubt most, passengers want the Federal Communications Commission to keep the prohibition on using cellphones on airliners.

The FCC is deciding whether to keep it or leave it to the airlines to decide. “Stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies from those who wander around shouting personal details into a microphone,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican, sponsor of legislation to keep the ban in place. “Babbling about last night’s love life, bathroom plans, next week’s schedule, orders to an assistant, arguments with spouses.” He hearkens fondly to the days when a flight was interrupted only occasionally by a colicky baby. He speculates that ending the ban would require tripling the number of air marshals “just to deal with the fistfights.”

Rep. Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who sounds like a man with experience sitting next to a motormouth, agrees. For those few hours in the air “with 150 other people,” he says, “it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.”

Pilots and stewardesses don’t want the use of cellphones on flights, either. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a Washington-based union, says that “passengers overwhelmingly reject cellphone use in the aircraft cabin.” The five FCC commissioners are likely to get a further earful when they appear Thursday before the communications and technology subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

For cellphones to work at high altitude, the airlines would install equipment that would connect calls to cell towers on the ground. After that the airlines might have to organize “talking” and “no-talking” sections, akin to the smoking sections of old.

Delta Air Lines has already said it won’t inflict talk-talk on its passengers. Several other airlines say they’ll wait and see. The government necessarily prohibits a lot of things on airliners, and though we think it’s a good idea to avoid making a federal case of almost anything, we’re with the passengers on this one. Passengers already suffer enough.