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An idea that has united America

Jan 13, 2014 - By Mark Shields

Even though cellphone calls on airline flights are legal, nobody wants them.

We finally have good news from and for our broken, polarized and dysfunctional capital city.

One modest proposal from a small independent federal agency -- with about half as many employees as the White House -- has miraculously brought together in common-cause beef-eaters and vegans, Fox News conservatives and MSNBC liberals, and even dog people and cat people.

By a 3-2 vote, this independent agency, the Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for regulating communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, moved to begin the process of lifting the ban on making phone calls from airplanes.

The prohibition was first imposed some 22 years ago, when cellphones were as big as men's size 10 shoes, because of a fear that calls from planes would disrupt cellular networks on the ground, possibly even interfering with the aircraft's safe operation. But technological improvements have eliminated any mechanical need for keeping the ban.

In a rare example of popular spontaneous combustion, a genuine grassroots movement emerged in fierce opposition to the possibility of passengers on U.S. commercial airlines being subjected to even half a cellphone conversation.

After a generation of being victimized by airline cost-cutting measures, from shrinking seat sizes and legroom to each ticket holder's overhead luggage space being confined to the dimensions of a Volkswagen Beetle's glove compartment, passengers were already sullen.

The prospect of having to listen to some loudmouth's bragging -- six inches from their ears -- about closing the biggest deal in New Jersey transformed them into rebels.

Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., after introducing with his colleague Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act, which would permit silent texting and e-mail but prohibit any phone calls, spoke for legions: "When you stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies -- babbling about last night's love life, next week's schedule, arguments with spouses -- it's not hard to see why the FCC shouldn't allow cellphone conversations on planes."

House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., observed that "allowing cellphones on planes sounds like the premise of a new reality show: cage-fighting at 30,000 feet."

An unlikely ally, Veda Shook, president of the labor union Association of Flight Attendants, backs the congressman's position, arguing: "We're trained to de-escalate. Why would you put something in the environment that can escalate? On an airplane, there's no such thing as a quiet car."

In fairness to the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler (whom I have known and liked for 40 years) testified, "I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet more than anyone else."

But he argued the ban is out-of-date and no longer a factor. Still, he applauded the announcement by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that he would look into using his statutory authority to ban in-flight calls.

If the FCC united multitudes in opposition to its green light to lift, from a safety perspective, the prohibition of in-flight phone calls, the commission recovered nicely by unanimously pushing the repeal of professional football's blackout rule, which for 40 years has prevented hometown fans from seeing their team's games on TV unless every seat in the stadium is sold. The repeal would put an end to team owners using this form of blackmail to sell seats.

So let us give the FCC the credit it has earned by acting boldly to unite -- even if it is in opposition -- our badly disunited country.


Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine who appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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