FAA seeks public input on draft report to Congress that relies on foreign airlines’ lightly used cell service.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ironically-named Ministry of Love oversees the torture of people disloyal to Big Brother. Within that ministry is Room 101. And inside Room 101 is the worst thing in the world, according to the private terrors of each offender. No one reading the book can help wondering what he or she would find there. 

For us, the answer is easy. Room 101 is set up like the inside of an airplane. One of the center seats is ours. The people on either side of us, barely a foot away, are yammering into their cell phones through every minute of a flight that never ends.

Keeping that horror at bay, for now, is an FCC rule barring handsets from using some (but not all) cell phone frequencies while aloft, and an FAA rule against operating most portable electronic devices, including cell phones, on U.S. aircraft. The FAA has told the airlines they can allow use of some kinds of electronic devices above 10,000 feet, but not cell phones. (As we reported recently, the FAA is considering whether to allow some kinds of devices throughout the flight.)

Now the FAA is taking another look at the cell phone ban as well.

Congress specifically ordered the agency to conduct a study on the impact of the use of cell phones for voice communications during passenger flights. The study, to be based on foreign practices, must include the extent to which passengers make cell calls, and most important of all (to us), “a summary of any impacts of cell phone use during flight on safety, the quality of the flight experience of passengers, and flight attendants.” (Emphasis added.)

We can’t imagine what Congress was thinking. Perhaps Congress has never spent its evenings on a commuter train next to a compulsive cell-phone talker. Maybe Congress hasn’t tried to carry on a conversation in Starbucks with a cell-phone user at the next table. Possibly Congress has never waited in line at the post office, in front of somebody with a handset on speakerphone broadcasting the intimate details of someone’s surgical procedure. Perhaps Congress just needs to get out more.

But the FAA, like all of us, must do Congress’s bidding. Putting things backwards – somewhat like the Queen of Hearts’ “Sentence first, verdict afterwards” – the FAA has already prepared its draft report, and now seeks public comment on it. The report relies on the experiences of a few foreign carriers that installed miniature base stations on some of their airplanes, thus enabling passengers to make and receive calls on board without tying up multiple base stations on the ground. 

The good news is that very few passengers use the service, a fact perhaps connected to passenger complaints about the high cost. The bad news: despite the limited use, one carrier still reported complaints about loud conversations from people on cell phones during flight. The report is careful to note the absence of any reported incidents (yet) of cell-phone-related air rage.

If you suspect, as we do, that widespread U.S. deployment of airborne cell phone capability would look very different from these limited trials overseas, you can share your concerns with the FAA. Email your comments to CELLPHONEcomment@faa.gov on or before November 5. Please be polite. And leave out the details of your surgical procedure.