TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on Feb 1, 2014

Journal Issue Date: Feb 2014

Journal Name: February 2014 - Vol. 50, No. 2

Like many busy lawyers, I am a frequent flyer. Several times each month, I make sure my seat back and tray table are in their locked, secure and upright position. I fasten my seatbelt and then say a little prayer before takeoff.

Like my hero, the late great Lewis Grizzard, I am not afraid of flying.

Flying is fine. It’s crashing and burning that scares the heck out of me!

And unless the bipartisan duo of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) come to my rescue, I will soon have to make sure that before take-off, my earplugs are also securely fastened to both sides of my head.

For more than 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration has banned cell phone calls on commercial air flights. The stated reason for the ban has been that airborne mobile devices might interfere with the radio equipment used by pilots, and therefore jeopardize air safety.

One can just imagine the flight crew in the cockpit trying to get final landing instructions from an air traffic controller 30,000 feet below when suddenly they hear the voice of a passenger saying, “We are about to land, sweetie! Can you hear me? ... Can you hear me now? Sure have missed you! Pick me up in front of the baggage claim in 15 minutes. You want Chinese tonight?”

But in December, Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler testified in a Congressional hearing that new wireless technology has resolved previous concerns about interference by so-called Smartphones with a plane’s radio equipment, and therefore the ban on in-flight cell phone use is no longer necessary.

The federal government is now considering new regulations that would allow airline passengers to surf the web, send emails and texts, and — Lord help us — talk on their cell phones once a plane reaches 10,000 feet.

Talk about a bumpy flight! The one saving grace of air travel is that it is generally quiet. Once the flight attendant has given her safety instructions (including showing us how to use our seat as a “flotation device” in the event of an unexpected landing in the Tennessee River) and the captain has made his welcoming speech on the plane intercom (“Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight … There’s no use in both of us being nervous now, is there?), we frequent flyers can settle in for a nice nap at 35,000 feet.

Our nap may get interrupted by the flight attendant offering us a wonderful two-course meal consisting of water and a bag of approximately four salted peanuts. And there’s always the chance that we might encounter what the captain euphemistically calls “a little unexpected rough air.”

But aside from these rare interruptions, a commercial air flight is generally bedtime for airborne bonzo.

But if those pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington soon allow the use of cell phones in flight, it will make the movie “Snakes on a Plane” look like “Sleepless in Seattle,” compared to the terrifying new film, “Cell Phones on a Plane.”

We frequent flyers will not get one moment of peace and quiet, as the passengers sitting on either side of us in coach will be talking like magpies, nonstop, into their cell phones. And trust me, you and I will not find their conversations fascinating.

Just think about the cell phone conversations you hear every day as you stand in a grocery store checkout line or even just walk down a city sidewalk minding your own business. It’s non-stop verbal nonsense that generally goes like this:

Can you hear me? … I said, can you hear me? Well, I can hear you, but can you hear me? What’s that? I’ll call you back!

I remember when air travel was a real joy. There was an unofficial dress code, requiring everyone riding a plane to look like they were headed for church.

The pleasant flight attendants served meals on real china, and they also provided us passengers with pillows and blankets.

And this was the service you got in coach! In first class, they would peel you grapes and tickle your fanny with a feather.

But now, air travel has become a cattle call. Not only do people not dress up for air travel, they hardly dress at all.

On most commercial flights, I am stuck between two enormous people, each wearing tank tops, speedos and flip flops.

The only thing that could make air travel worse would be if both of my nearly-naked co-passengers were talking constantly into their cell phones.

But our senior senator, Lamar Alexander, may come to our rescue. In a bipartisan effort that we seldom see in Washington these days, he and Sen. Feinstein have co-sponsored a bill that will prevent in-flight cell phone calls.

“Keeping cell phone conversations private on commercial flights may not be enshrined in the Constitution, but it is certainly enshrined in common sense,” Senator Alexander told The Washington Post. He then added, “This legislation is about avoiding something nobody wants: nearly two million passengers a day, hurtling through space, trapped in 17” wide seats, yapping their innermost thoughts.”

Winston Churchill could not have said it better.

Here’s hoping members of Congress will listen to Sen. Alexander and Sen. Feinstein. If they don’t, you and I may have to listen to a mile-high cacophony of non-stop nonsense.
Unless the Federal Aviation Administration allows each of us to pack a parachute, there will be no escape.

And at that point, cell phones really will pose a danger to air safety, as we frustrated passengers use our flotation devices to beat the cell phone-users into silent submission and then stuff them in the overhead bins.

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.