WASHINGTON -- Is it possible that the Federal Communications Commission is developing a double standard on decency? The commissioners don't hesitate to slap a fine over Janet Jackson's breast or Howard Stern's mouth. But when it comes to aerial etiquette, they just throw up their hands.
On Wednesday, the FCC unanimously voted to consider lifting the ban on cell phones at 30,000 feet. If the Federal Aviation Administration gives the safety go-ahead, cell phones are coming to a seat near you.
My bet is that more people are offended by cell phone functions than wardrobe malfunctions. The people who spew their life stories in public are surely guilty of indecent exposure. Nevertheless, Commissioner Michael J. Copps barely tipped his hat to "the annoying seatmate issue." And fellow Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said airily, "Our job is to see if this is possible and then let consumers work out the etiquette."
Work out the etiquette? We are headed into the perfect storm of incivility, where cell rage meets air rage. But since the FCC has asked for public commentary, this public will comment.
Flying is already as pleasant as checking into prison. We are greeted at the airport by rent-a-cops who investigate everything from our wingtips to our titanium hips. We have our cuticle scissors confiscated, get molested by perfect strangers and board bankrupt airlines manned by cranky flight attendants who have just lost their pensions and won a 20 percent pay cut.
We are then incarcerated in a space smaller than that permitted detainees under the Geneva Conventions, fed nothing but pretzels and banned from the bathroom within a half-hour of the Washington Monument. In the era of the cell phone, we already cringe when the man conducting a leveraged buyout in the jetway sits down beside us. Imagine our joy when he shares the story of his colonoscopy in full cell-yell all the way across the country.
Can you hear me now?
Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future flies about 200,000 miles a year and is no pal of the cell phone. "New technologies are wild animals," he says, "they're unsocialized, unpredictable and impolite." It took years after the invention of the phone just to learn to say "hello."
Remember, he says, that we already have phones on the backs of some seats. The ability to talk through computers is coming, ready or not. Mr. Saffo actually finds the alarm about cell phones in the flying prisons "encouraging": "It's a sign that we will work out social conventions about what's polite and what's not polite."
I am also willing to acknowledge some heartening signs of social pressure. The trains that traverse the Northeast Corridor are now equipped with quiet cars and vigilante passengers who set upon cell phone users with a vengeance that we can only applaud. Restaurants are increasingly blessed with no-phone signs and sections.
There is also a techno-retreat from the cell phone ring to the cell phone vibrator. And the "dirty look," a facial form of shunning once used to drive smokers out of doors, now drives some phoners out of movie theaters.
But we can't have a no-phone zone in a plane where secondhand noise circulates more freely than oxygen. Nor can you take the call outside. There's no room for knees, let alone a phone booth, in the plane.
Barbara Pachter, the author of The Jerk with the Cell Phone, believes there are no bad cell phones, only bad cell users. She has a rather charming faith in the power of etiquette to restrain technology. She says "please."
But rude still rules. Indeed, my last vestige of faith in consumer-driven etiquette was dimmed by news of a recent restaurant tussle between a good citizen and a foul-mouthed cell-yeller in St. Paul, Minn. Somehow I don't think we want people working out the new etiquette in the aisle of a 747.
Airlines are looking to cell phones for income. It's just a matter of time till there's hot air in the air. In this spirit, may we suggest that when airlines go cellular, they dispense rules for how many decibels each passenger is allowed. May the FCC, in the name of decency, dispense deflators for egos so huge they can't bear to be out of touch.
Meanwhile, a small tip to consumers who want to work this out. In Britain, an insurance company has just offered a brand new product: air rage insurance. Can you hear me now?
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.