Shhh, quiet! Railroads are listening — but will the airlines?

by Ned Levi on March 30, 2009

Amtrak has “quiet cars,” where no cell phone conversation is permitted. SEPTA, the regional transit authority for the Greater Philadelphia Region is making the lead car of all 3+ car trains a “quiet car.” The MARC (Maryland) Penn Line runs “quiet cars.” VRE (Virginia) is running “quiet cars” too.

While railroad “quiet cars” proliferate, US airlines are considering permitting inflight Internet phone calls, and if the FAA lifts their inflight cell phone ban, that will undoubtedly be considered too. Why, money no doubt! Charging for cell phone or Internet phone access would add another revenue stream for the airlines.

The European Union no longer bans cell phone use on flights over Europe. Air Emirates permits cell phone usage and plans to facilitate it. Qantas plans the same. I have no doubt more airlines will cash in on this new revenue stream.

I think adding cellular and Internet inflight data services makes a lot of sense. It would add another revenue stream for the airlines. I would definitely use these services myself. On the other hand, I am against providing cellular or Internet voice communication services for passengers.

I travel on Amtrak regularly. Most of the time I can get a seat in a “quiet car,” but not always. A typical Amtrak passenger car has similar dimensions to an Airbus A320 cabin. Consider being confined to either for several hours with 20 or more passengers having continuous telephone conversations. It happens on Amtrak all the time, except in the “quiet car.”

On a recent 2hr 20min trip to New York, on a packed train, without a seat to spare, I had the misfortune of sitting across from a young woman who continuously prattled on with multiple friends on her cell phone from the moment we left PHL until we arrived at NYP.

Think about what it would be like to have that woman in your row on a transcontinental flight, and at least 20-30 more passengers in cell phone conversation at all times for the five hours or more of the flight. It boggles my mind!

Inflight cell phone use advocates citing the 2008 Bureau of Transportation Statistics survey of American households, say it clearly shows Americans are changing their minds. The survey showed 39.7% of households said inflight cell phone use should definitely, or probably be allowed, while 45.2% of households said inflight cell phone use should definitely or probably not be allowed. Not surprisingly, younger Americans were more likely to approve of inflight cell phone use than older Americans.

The survey, in my opinion, has a serious flaw. Not only don’t we know how often the respondents actually fly, we don’t know if they fly at all. Therefore I attach little or no importance to the BTS survey.

There have been surveys of the American flying public about inflight cell phone use. In 2007, Maritz Research conducted such a survey. Maritz’s survey showed 57% of respondents opposed inflight cell phone use, while 27% favored it. To me the Maritz survey is credible, since it surveyed people who actually had flown in the prior six months.

In January, SEPTA conducted a “quiet car” initiative on its R5 regional rail line. It was so well received, SEPTA is now including a “quiet car” on all it’s 3+ car trains.

Generally, the nation’s passenger railroads have been listening to its passengers, and they are increasingly asking to travel without having to listen to the clamor of cell phone use. The question is, will the FAA and the airlines listen to their passengers?

As a compromise, it’s been suggested a “quiet section” in planes, for those who want it, could be created. I remember the days when there were smoking and non-smoking sections in airplanes. The problem was, as soon as anyone lighted-up, the entire plane became a smoking section. I was in the first row of a non-smoking section of an Allegheny plane many years ago. It was so smoky there, you would have thought the plane was on fire. The same would be true for inflight cell phone use, in my opinion.

In particular, some inflight cell phone use advocates have said they must stay in contact with their office during their flights. Hmmm, I wonder what they’ve been doing about that up until now? I guess they went out of business while they flew.

The communication dilemma is easy to solve in my opinion. Continue the ban on voice communication, but equip planes to facilitate cell phone data communication, such as email and text messaging, and make WIFI available for laptop use for email, instant messaging, web, etc. That should offer more than enough quality passenger inflight communication to satisfy everyone’s needs.

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  • Kathleen

    I fly often–more than 2 dozen times a year. When I sit near a chatterbox, I find it nearly impossible to sleep. Allowing phone conversations would make the situation exponentially worse. PLEASE, airlines, keep voice connections off limits. Let people text to their hearts’ content, but block audible communications.

  • Scott

    I’m fascinated by your claim that the trip on Amtrak from PHL to NYP on a packed train took 2 hours 20 minutes. I travel that route frequently, and even on the “Keystone” and “Northeast Regional” trains (not to mention the higher-speed Acela Express), the trip is never more than 90 minutes from 30th Street to Pennsylvania Station. How did you manage to add another 50 minutes to your train ride?

  • Ned Levi

    Scott, I don’t know about you, but I ride Amtrak enough to have a number of delays each year, though more often than not, the trains arrive on time, or darn close to it.

    Unfortunately on this one, a Keystoner, there was trouble in the tunnel between NYC and NJ, according to the conductor. The train was stopped several times during the trip and we ended up very late. I had to call from the train to my restaurant a couple of times to tell them we would be delayed. Fortunately, I eat there often and they accommodated us.

    Last year I took the Carolinian to Richmond. We arrived almost 4 hours late. At one point we were stopped dead just south of Washington for almost an hour on that one.

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