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

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

Marchadie, a programmer from Jacksonville, Fla., says, “I shudder to think about what’s going to happen on planes if cellphones are allowed. “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.

Cellphone chatter on planes

“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.”

The rise of quiet zones

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.

Amtrak laid the tracks for this privilege 14 years ago when its frequent passengers requested the introduction of its first “Quiet Car.” The national rail carrier mandates that conversations in these cars must be held in subdued tones and limited. If you want to engage in an “extended” conversation, you have to take it to another car. Quiet Cars do not permit phone calls, and passengers must mute all electronic devices, including smartphones.

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.

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

Providing quiet zones for guests

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.

Response to in-flight calls

But the issue of quiet on planes gained public 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 other countries have already cleared wireless devices for voice communications on commercial aircraft, political forces quickly aligned against the FCC’s possible rule-loosening. Shuster introduced his bill 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.” (Related: Hotel complaints that will make you want to check out.)

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? (Here’s what you need to know before planning your next trip.)

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 the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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