It's the classic battle fought against a modern backdrop: just as technology is finally saying that we could have wireless communication on airplanes, humanity is questioning whether we should have it; or at least certain kinds of it. The hemorrhaging airline industry is eager to allow (and charge for) passengers to use mobile phones on planes, but a bill that would ban such use is making progress through the US House.
Dubbed the "Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace" (HANGUP… get it?) Act of 2008, the bill was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee by a voice vote yesterday. The bill's next stop is likely to be the House floor.
In a nutshell, the bill states that "An individual may not engage in voice communications using a mobile communications device in an aircraft during a flight in scheduled passenger interstate air transportation or scheduled passenger intrastate air transportation." Exempt from this rule are flight crew, flight attendants, and federal law enforcement officers acting in an official capacity. Note that the bill's language doesn't touch other mobile-phone-based communication like text messaging, e-mail, and Internet access, and it also excludes voice communicating using a phone installed on an aircraft.
Currently, the FAA and FCC are responsible for policy regarding in-flight use of electronics, but this bill would take the decision-making authority out of their hands. Traditionally, the use of mobile phones and other wireless communication devices has been banned on planes out of concern for interference with sensitive equipment. While this point has been regularly contested over the years, research as recent as 2006 still leaves the matter undecided, with data remaining inconclusive as to whether making a call mid-flight could adversely affect instrumentation.
If mobile phone use were unleashed for flights, however, the airlines are reportedly thrilled about the revenue potential. Customers could be charged a small premium for the privilege of making a mid-flight call (though we aren't quite sure how this could be policed on a flight), while other customers could be charged a different fee to sit in a "phone-free section."
Before we all start investing in highly effective noise-canceling headphones, however, this HANG UP bill may cut airlines off at the pass. "Polls show the public overwhelmingly doesn't want to be subjected to people talking on their cell phones on increasingly over-packed airplanes," Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon who cosponsored the HANG UP Act, said in a press release. "However, with Internet access just around the corner on US flights, it won't be long before the ban on voice communications on in-flight planes is lifted."