Do you have a right to a little peace and quiet?

Vladimir Shurpenkov/Shutterstock
Vladimir Shurpenkov/Shutterstock
There’s no worse form of torture for travelers like Jeanne Marchadie than having to endure the sound of people yakking on a cellphone in close quarters.

“I shudder to think about what’s going to happen on planes if cellphones are allowed,” says Marchadie, a programmer from Jacksonville, Fla. “What a nightmare — except, of course, to those people who live on their cellphones and force those within hearing distance to listen to their mindless drivel.”

She may not have to worry.

A congressional bill banning cellphone chatter on planes is a step closer to passage after recently clearing a House committee. If it becomes law, it would prohibit wireless calls on commercial flights, with exceptions for on-duty crew members and federal law enforcement agents acting in an official capacity.

“Airplane cabins are by nature noisy, crowded, and confined,” said Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, in a statement. “In our day-to-day lives, when we find someone’s cellphone call to be too loud, too close, or too personal, we can just walk away. But at 30,000 feet, there’s nowhere else for an airline passenger to go.”

Silence has been valued since humans started traveling, of course. But the debate about cellphone chatter on planes has touched a nerve, and if the law passes, it could even do something unprecedented: establish that air travelers have a right to a little peace and quiet on their journey.

The tracks for this privilege were laid by Amtrak 14 years ago, when it introduced its first “Quiet Car” at the request of its frequent passengers. Conversations in these cars must be held in subdued tones and should be limited, according to the national rail carrier. If you want to engage in an “extended” conversation, you have to take it to another car. No phone calls are permitted on Quiet Cars, and all electronic devices, including smartphones, must be muted.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the conversation-free cars took off like a runaway train. By April 2001, Quiet Cars had spread to 16 more trains. Today, all of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and Acela Express trains have Quiet Cars, as do many other corridor services around the country. Amtrak does not charge for seating there.

“It’s gratifying to see other carriers adopt this concept,” says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Hotels have likewise embraced the idea that quiet is a right for some guests. The most high-profile example is Crowne Plaza, which experimented with its Quiet Zones only a few years after Amtrak’s Quiet Cars took to the rails. On its designated quiet floors, the hotel chain promises no room attendant, housekeeping or engineering activities from Sunday to Thursday between 9 p.m. and 10 a.m., unless you request it. Rooms in a Quiet Zone don’t cost extra, and you can find them in every one of Crowne Plaza’s hundreds of hotels.

The airline discussion is a little more complicated. After all, the interior of a commercial aircraft is a noisy place, with sustained sound levels of anywhere between 60 and 70 decibels, or about twice as loud as the average library. In other words, you might have some difficulty hearing the person next to you and probably can’t eavesdrop on a conversation happening even one seat away.

But the issue of quiet on planes captured the public’s attention at the end of last year when the Federal Communications Commission announced that it would consider new rules allowing cellphones to be used above 10,000 feet. Even though wireless devices are already cleared for voice communications on commercial aircraft in other countries, political forces quickly aligned against the FCC’s possible rule-loosening. Shuster’s bill was introduced in December. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also issued a statement that his agency would “begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these in-flight calls.”

Stopping cellphones appears to enjoy strong public support. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 59 percent of American voters favor a ban on cellphones on planes. Scores of readers have contacted me in recent weeks to voice their support for chat-free cabins. April Masini, an advice columnist and etiquette expert, says that in a world where escape from noise is often impossible, an airplane is one of the last places where we can count on that silence, such as it is.

“Every now and then,” she adds, “Congress gets it right.”

Is the government finally saying that after airlines took away our legroom, our meals, our service and our ability to make common-sense changes to a ticket, there’s one thing they can’t remove? Is it saying that when you fly, you have the right to a little peace and quiet?

We’re about to find out.

Should travelers have a legal right to a little peace and quiet?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • LFH0

    The underlying issue in the aforementioned case was that a license (or precisely, a “franchise”) was purportedly required by state law in order to operate a bus service. The brokerage company accused of violating the law arranged for the provision of charter bus service from a charter bus company. It was the charter bus company that physically operated the buses (i.e., employees of the charter bus company). Yet, even though the brokerage company accused did not physically operate the buses, the court found that it had sufficient direction and control over the buses so that it found the brokerage company to be the “operator.”

    Here, it is suggested that a person may be liable for one of the responsibilities of a motor vehicle operator (i.e., not using the telephone while operating a motor vehicle), even if the person is not physically operating a motor vehicle at the time.

    Thus, the aforementioned case may stand for the proposition that one need not be physically operating a motor vehicle, yet still be charged with the responsibilities of being its operator.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Yes, I read the case, but none of that is relevant. That’s not how you interpret statutes.

    The legal point is that the term operator has different meanings in different context. In the cell phone case operator = driver, a natural person.

    In the context of the cited case and presumably the related statutes, the operator means the entity who directs and controls the operation of the vehicle that is used in a business (e.g. owner, licensee, etc.)

    At the beginning of a section of codes, there is often a definition page which defines the terms such as operator for that code section. That definition has no meaning for other sections.

    Consider. In the cell phone case, the operator is a natural person. In the cited case, the operator can be a corporation. Clearly, its not the same definition.

  • LFH0

    I think you may be getting hung up on an agency principle, that is not really relevant, rather the distinction between the two separate companies involved. Yes, only a natural person can do a physical act, but a non-natural person can act through its employees. And it was an employee of the charter bus company–not the accused brokerage company–that was driving the bus. Yet, the court held the brokerage company liable for the operation of the bus, not the charter bus company whose employee was doing the driving.

    In both the cited case and in the hypothesized circumstance in which a “motorist” who is not operating a motor vehicle at the time, neither “person” is actually “operating,” yet both are assigned the duties of an operator.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Respectfully no.

    Your interpretation is strained. Agency is irrelevant. Let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing.

    You posit that the statute could be used to prevent a passenger from cell phone usage. I strongly disagree that that is even a reasonable interpretation.

    As I understand your argument, a non-driver can be considered an operator of the vehicle and thus potentially responsible. I agree with that position in some circumstances but not this one.

    Once again, the term operator in the cell phone statute is interpreted by NY as meaning driver, and thus only the driver can be cited, unless another statute authorizes someone else.

    As interpreted by DMV…

    What are the penalties for cell phone use, texting or sending email while you operate a vehicle in New York State?

    Under New York State law you cannot use a hand-held mobile telephone or send a text or an email while you drive. If you use a hand-held mobile telephone while you drive…

    For purposes of cell phone usage, New York equates operating a motor vehicle only with drivers. Operating a motor vehicle has other meanings in other contexts, but is limited to drivers when discussing proscribed cell phone behavior.

  • LFH0

    I agree that only persons operating a motor vehicle should be held liable for the responsibilities of a motor vehicle operator. I believe that the court strained the plain and ordinary meaning of the word “operator” in the cited case, and instead of holding the charter bus company (the company actually operating the buses) liable for not possessing a license, it held an innocent non-driving third party liable. Any transportation lawyer can see through the court’s irrational decision-making (especially laughable is the court’s analysis of 49 U.S.C. § 14501(b)(1), making reference to a “broker for a freight forwarder,” a non-existent term that is sheer nonsense and gibberish, and relied upon only to support a predetermined decision). I believe that in enforcing a cellular telephone ban against a non-driving person is also wrong as a matter of law. But that would not stop a New York action against such a person.

    The problem is that New York is not a state driven by law. It is driven by men, who want to reward and punish people based on the needs and politics of the situation. Your error is reliance on reasoning to reach conclusions. If an elected official wants to “crack down,” the government will go after cell telephone users, regardless of whether or not it is within a reasonable interpretation of the law. And courts will oftentimes follow, straining any reasonable interpretation of the law as actually written to reach the desired outcome. Administrative interpretations and regulations are used only when convenient; Accarrdi v. Shaugnessy, 347 U.S. 260 (1954), is meaningless. It is the ultimate frustration when courts are not blind.

  • Mikael Mik

    Good in theory, not without flaws practice. A surcharge (not a tax), might discourage frivolous calling, but won’t deter those financially capable. A business traveler can be equally or more obnoxious than someone gabbing away socially.
    Therefore, I think having some flights as “Cell Phone Accessible” similar to Wifi Accessible is the proper route. Passengers understand these flights are subject to chatting. Toss on the surcharge if one desires to discourage people, and I think there’s a happy median.

  • Blackadar

    After listening to the woman behind me talk in a loud voice to her seatmate about how important her USDA job is while being totally oblivious that she was keeping everyone around her awake on this morning’s red-eye flight, I’d pay more for a quiet airplane.

  • Charles

    “the interior of a commercial aircraft is a noisy place, with sustained sound levels of anywhere between 60 and 70 decibels, or about twice as loud as the average library.”

    Looks like time for a basic lesson in decibels and sound level. First, the average sound level for an airplane in flight has been measured at 75-80 decibels (http://jcaa.caa-aca.ca/index.php/jcaa/article/view/1854). The sound level in a library is about 40 db (http://www.industrialnoisecontrol.com/comparative-noise-examples.htm). The decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear, 80db is not twice as loud as 40db, it’s 100 times as loud! Based on these numbers, the interior of an airplane is 56-100 times as loud as a library. It is, in fact, about twice as loud as a normal conversation.

  • Chris Johnson

    Unless they are the satellite type, would cell phones be able to pick up a signal on an airplane anyway? In any case, airplanes may be the last place in the world where we can be free from cell phone chatter and I appreciate that. I used to travel by train a lot, in the Quiet Car, and people who violated the Quiet Car rules pissed me off to no end, then they couldn’t understand when I got upset about it. I couldn’t understand why they had to violate the Quiet Car rules when there were at least SIX MORE CARS where they can blather away (on cell phones or to each other) to their hearts’ delight!

  • Charles

    The plan is for the airlines to install picocells in planes that the phones would actually communicate with. They would, in turn, either communicate with ground stations or satellites. That way they control the communications.

  • gracekelley

    Doesn’t matter where you go or what your doing there’s always a person that the rules will not apply to because they are THAT important or just oblivious to them because they are to engulfed in their electronics to read or listen to the rules being given to them.

    This is the world we live in.

  • gracekelley

    I once had a nice lady who was putting on mascara while on her cell phone hit me head on in a turning lane (I was in turning lane) and didn’t even know what she did until the police found her car in the shopping center right across from the scene of the accident and pointed out the huge dent in the front left side of her car.

  • Chris Johnson

    Yes, that’s the truth. As a side note, I voted Yes on this poll, but have no idea how such a legal right would be easily enforced.

  • NoraG

    I remember the first flight I was on where those built-in phones were available. It was horrible! A passenger used the phone the entire flight! Why? Just to call everybody he knew so that he could tell them that he was using a phone on a plane! Of course, we were behind the engines, so he thought he had to yell into the phone. Everyone in the plane could hear him. I’ve noticed whenever people are on phones in noisy places, they almost always talk very loudly. I cannot imagine how horrible it would be to have several dozen people doing this all at the same time.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Great minds think alike. I thought the same thing: banning cell phone use opens up a can of worms. The sky wardens (FAs) sometimes abuse their authority to bump passengers for federal regulations (or the claim of such) or even to call a sky marshal. Someone getting out a cell phone to quietly check on a reservation may wind up getting kicked off a plane. And sometimes, the airlines may WANT them to do that (say, expected delays) to be able to arrange for a transfer. In that case, the airline won’t have an discretion because the calls have been banned outright.

    This is a neat allegory for the no-smoking on planes and other discussions about whether the FAA should regulate seat width/pitch. With smoking, one cannot easily avoid the smell of such a harmful substance so that ban is understandable. Even with a cell phone user, provided they aren’t being overly loud, earplugs work. In theory, all unnecessary chatter should be banned by federal law is the purpose is a silent cabin.

    I have met some wonderful seatmates on flights and had wonderful conservations. We were always polite and quiet as possible and considerate of those around us. So a federal ban on airplane cell phones seems a bit excessive.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I don’t know if the invention is out there, but I think this would be a great way to deal with crying babies or to train loud talkers. Put a bluetooth headset on them with a mic and write a program to generate a feedback loop. Adjust the loop to progressively amplify feedback above a preset threshold (the louder they yell, the MORE it’s amplified).

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I traveled in Europe and felt ashamed of myself as a barbarian. I learned a lot. Even the lower classes dressed well. They may have had old clothes, but they were clean. Few people talked and if they did, they kept it in hushed tones. Their indoor voices make our indoor voices sound like their outdoor voices.

    Consequently, a lot of people in the states avoid public transportation and this is (one) MAJOR reason why it’s so inadequate in the states. I had a debate on this here on Elliott a while ago because Carver and others claimed it was the USA’s size that killed public transit in the states. Until 1960, public transit was common and very usable. Something changed.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    If WIFI is free on the plane, most smartphones can use skype or other applications to use voice over IP to make cheap worldwide calls (it’s my preferred way, actually, instead of going on network overseas.) With a bluetooth headset, I can even make “mobile” phone calls with my pc. (Oh, the airline blocks the skype port? hehehe. I gotta squid at home!)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Request for the FA to provide the family with headsets so the child can listen to the movie.

    I also carry spares for such scenarios. I also carry a splitter so that if the headphone jack is broken on my IFE system, I can use my wife’s to watch a movie with her (or vice versa.)

  • VoR61

    I care because it is disruptive, whether or not the conversation is live or on a phone. Short, infrequent conversations at a relatively low volume are fine I think.

    In the case of an aircraft, two factors exacerbate this issue: the closer proximity of others, and the lack of ambient sounds. Consider, for example, a restaurant where background music usually plays and there is, by nature, a lot of conversation. Unless a person or group is excessively loud, their conversation doesn’t stand out as much as on an aircraft or in a public meeting.

    Once again, my observation has been that callers tend to talk longer and louder. On an aircraft where I can’t create space between a caller and me, it’s going to be very disruptive, And I rarely encounter passengers who chat (in person) loud enough or long enough to be an issue.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Found it. Thanks for the tip. I liked it:

  • LFH0

    As to public transportation on the ground, something indeed changed, starting in the post-war years, and going through the early 1970s. As soldiers were returning from the war, the GI bill allowed them to, among other things, get mortgages on new single family houses in the suburbs, thereby accelerating the migration from the transit-supportive cities to the automobile-dependent suburbs. Real estate agents also scared some city dwellers into leaving, and many banks redlined city areas, thereby creating a “white flight.” On top of this, the federally-funded interstate (and “defense”) highway system of 1956, coupled with unquestioned government support at other levels for the building and maintenance of roads, resulted in heavy effective subsidies for automobile use. Meanwhile, transit companies generally received no government assistance, and were going belly-up left and right. At first, suburban families had one car, which was used either by the husband to drive to his suburban job–leaving the wife to do shopping during the day by bus–or by the wife to drive the husband to the train station in the morning and afternoon. But when families began buying two cars in the early 1970s, suburban transit by the middle class ceased. In effect, the only people remaining on the bus were the poor, the minorities left behind in the central cities, the disabled, the young, and the elderly. Now with a much greater proportion of transit passengers with special needs–as opposed to transit carrying passengers that largely reflected the composition of the communities through which it passed–many more of the middle class began feeling uncomfortable in their surroundings and fellow passengers on the bus. I think this is what you’ve seen.

    Why is public transportation in the air different? I think it is because so many fewer people are reasonably able to afford a private airplane as compared to a private automobile. Following deregulation, airfares have decreased significantly (in terms of real dollars), and air fares are now so affordable that many of the people who used to travel on the bus now fly. In other words, what had been a separate world reserved for the middle class has been become more like public transportation on the ground, with an increased proportion of passengers with special needs. This no-longer homogenous passenger load has caused, I believe, many of the altercations that are discussed here. I think that many middle class people would abandon public transportation in the sky, just as quickly as they abandoned public transportation on the ground, were they able to afford to do so. (But since they can’t, they want to create their own “private” world and prohibit anyone in this non-homogeneous group from doing as they may want. Hence, disputes like this one relating to cellular telephones.)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I’m chuckling because this discussion is about mobile phones which is also a form of public “communication”, literally. The days of the telephone booth are becoming similar to that of The Doctor’s police box. About 20 years ago, I could still find glass phone booths to make calls in. They’re expensive to maintain (hobos, etc. make a mess of them or break the glass.) but they were useful for travelers or those without a mobile phone on them.

    The mobile phone addiction is rather expensive. I broke down and bought one myself for about the cost of a landline. In the old days, a home had a landline and a family would share it. Now, families typically pay $150 a month for “family smart plans”. I’m trying to hold my wife away from that crack.

    In any case, the myth of the American reliance upon the car due to vast distances persists. The primary reason is cultural. In the states, I told a girl who asked me “what kind of car do you drive?” and when I said none, er, that didn’t last long. Since I lived in the city and traveled often (and had a nice big fat bank account she didn’t know about), I didn’t see a reason to deal with a car I rarely used. I met a nice European girl who didn’t mind and because she walked everywhere, it also helped her figure.

    Now that she has a car, she drives a lot more and is no longer bound by the limits that she can only eat what she can carry half a kilometer home…

  • TiaMa

    From the beginning of commercial airlines until fairly recently (with the exception of the seat back telephones), one could not make phone calls on commercial airplanes and waited until they reached their destination to return calls and everyone survived just fine. What constitutes a need to use phones on planes is a bit exaggerated. It can wait, people.

  • S363

    Everyone survived just fine before there were airplanes at all. Therefore we should ban airplanes. Because the criterion for allowing something is whether we can survive without it. QED

  • Lindabator

    I think that is a great idea – much better than everyone yelling to be heard. (WHY do people always think they have to yell into a cell phone?) :)

  • Lindabator

    SO the criterion should be accept it because some people can’t live WITHOUT it???

  • Name

    The only guaranteed way to get some peace and quiet while travelling is to emulate the French. Keep your voice soft and low in all public places. Until you’ve experienced it, you can’t imagine how blissful it is to appear at breakfast at a decent French hotel and hear the murmuring. No amount of legislation or rules can keep people quiet, they need to do that themselves. I have little hope for Americans, the morons are getting louder.

  • Mikael Mik

    He laughed until getting home and finding a bill that required a second mortgage to pay.