Between the Cracks, What To Do With Jerks?

There is no one who flies who hasn’t heard the command to turn off their cellphone when the airplane leaves the gate.  The rationale was that cellphones would interfere with the plane’s sensitive navigation equipment and, perhaps, make the plane fall from the sky. Why this might happen was never clear, but it was the explanation for the rule, and the rule was clear. Turn it off or no one goes anywhere.

Thoughtful people noted that no plane has ever fallen from the sky because of the errant cellphone being left on.  Finally, the Federal Aviation Authority, the promulgator of the rule,  conceded that it didn’t have an actual basis for the rule, but preferred to play it safe by default. 

The rule was created in the early days of cellphones, when there was much concern about what their magic waves might do, and no one was quite sure whether it could cause a problem, and no one was willing to take the chance that it might cause a plane to fall from the sky.  Today, years and millions of cellphones later, it’s not as much of a mystery, particularly since pilots use iPads in the cockpit and still no plane has fallen.

Which presents a conundrum for Alois Vetter, a 45-year-old from Colorado who was  flying Southwest out of Indianapolis to Denver. 

An air traveler was arrested yesterday for refusing to turn off his cell phone prior to the departure of a Southwest Airlines flight from an Indiana airport, police report.

Alois Vetter, 45, was busted for disorderly conduct after allegedly ignoring repeated requests from crew members on the flight, which was headed to Denver from Indianapolis.

The plane’s captain, Ashley Woolman, told police that he taxied the Boeing 737 back to a gate around 7:30 AM and ordered Vetter to leave the plane. Vetter, who was traveling with his 15-year-old daughter, refused, according to an Indianapolis Airport Police Department report. He was then arrested by airport police.

Pictured in the adjacent mug shot, Vetter was booked into the Marion County jail on a misdemeanor charge. Vetter’s daughter was briefly placed in the care of child welfare officials until her father was released from custody.

Assuming Vetter did as they say, he violated the rule. His disorderly conduct is not for the offense of possession of a cellphone left in the “on” position, but refusing to turn it off upon command.  The law is remarkably protective of orders given on airplanes.  But where is the culpability of refusing to adhere to a rule that is now conceded to be baseless?  If the rationale is that cellphone will make planes fall from the sky, and the fact is that they won’t, then the rule is arbitrary and capricious. Refusing to adhere to an arbitrary and capricious rule doesn’t form the basis for an offense.

And yes, his mugshot makes him look like a bad guy. Everyone with a dark beard looks like a bad guy these days. Get over it.

Before reaching the legal issue, a few points are undeniable. First, as a result of his refusal and the reasonably anticipated reaction, a planeload of people were delayed and inconvenienced.  Each of them had something better to do than sit on the tarmac awaiting local police to come for Vetter.  Had this been an act of disobedience with some claim to societal virtue, maybe it could be argued that Vetter’s refusal, like Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus, was worth enduring.  But this wasn’t Montgomery, and Vetter was no Rosa Parks. 

Even though the long-held explanation for turning off cellphones may be nonsense, another rationale, far more worthy, remains.  Talking on the cellphone is unbearably annoying to those around you in close quarters. No one cares enough about junior’s wart, those cute shoes or how deeply moved you were at Graceland to suffer listening to your insipid conversation. 

There is nothing important enough that you have to say to put others through that torment. If you are sitting within arm’s reach of me, I may feel an irresistible impulse to grab your cellphone and throw it as hard as I can against the bulkhead. Don’t make me do that. I’m not a violent person, but I might not be able to control myself.  Text all you want. Send emails if you must. But don’t chatter. Just don’t.

Yet this isn’t the rationale for commanding passengers to turn off their cellphone, though it should be.  So what becomes of a rubric when it loses its rationale?

We are generally a compliant society, doing as we are told for no better reason than someone has told us to do so.  It may be that it’s not worth the fight. It may be a matter of courtesy to our fellow passengers. Both are fair reasons to comply. Yet the individual who decides that he’s not going to be courteous that day, he’s not going to do as he’s told when there is no justification for doing so other than not make a ruckus. What is the moral basis to make him a criminal when his malum prohibitum wrong can no longer be justified?

While Vetter’s conduct was, in the grand scheme of fighting for freedom, foolish as it failed to serve the greater good, pissed off the other passengers who didn’t sign on for the fight, and won’t change any prohibition, it also fails to rise to the level of justifying imposition of criminal sanctions.  Until there is a change in FAA and air carrier rules that rationalizes policy with reality, this condition will persist.

So Vetter is a major jerk. That’s not a crime per se, and if it was, most of us would be criminals for something.  . 

16 comments on “Between the Cracks, What To Do With Jerks?

  1. John Burgess

    All the airlines need to is promulgate a rule that cell phones are not to be used on the plane, or during certain times — like while the plane is in flight.

    Violating the airlines rules is sufficient to get a passenger removed, even calling in the cops to do so. A violation of the terms of contract can readily be morphed into some sort of trespass, can it not?

    Personally, I’d prefer an ejection seat (and no parachute) for those using cell phones on a plane. Or on a train, bus, or subway, or in a restaurant or cinema for that matter.

  2. Turk

    There is nothing in the report saying that he was using the phone to talk.

    He might, or might not, be a jerk for the other reason you mentioned (causing plane to turn around) but loud yakking doesn’t appear to be part of it. .

  3. Fly guy

    As a pilot with a BSEE let add bit. First off, just becuase you have not noted planes falling out of the sky, it doesn’t mean that cell phones and other devices don’t cause issues with nav signals. Things are also nonlinear, this means that while one person in row 44 causes a .01 degrade of the navigation, 10 cell phones can cause more than .1 of a problem.

    Now when you are PIC, pilot in command, what you say is the final word on that flight. The PIC is like the Captaín of the ship. If anything bad happens all eyes on him. You don’t know how to fly a plane, you don’t see the funny things on the instruments, turn off the phone when told.

    The other thing about phones, when above the surface of the earth, they will talk to more than one cell tower at the same time. This causes issues for the cell system. Cell operators have made improvements over the years to prevent this from happening, but it still does. Turning your cell off is more of a FCC issue than a FAA issue.

    Next issue, take off and landings. If something bad is going to happen, it is going be during those phases of flight. You really need to stay alert in case the crew needs you to do something that will save your life. Put the phone or game down.

    And of course, it is rude. You really are not that important that you must be on the phone all the time.

  4. SHG

    Based on the New York Times article about the FAA’s revisiting its rules, there is some significant doubt about whether there is any empirical basis for certain of the religious beliefs. I’m neither a pilot nor an engineer, so I’m hardly qualified to opine either way, but I bet there are flights with 50 phones on and they too didn’t fall out of the sky (or get lost due to degraded navigation).  No amount of tech talk alters the absence of any actual danger or harm.

    As for the PIC being God in the Plane, that presents one of the troubling issues. There are too many instances of pilots exercising judgment poorly as to who stays, who goes and who deserves to be arrested. The ability to fly an airplane isn’t tantamount to having sound interpersonal judgment. And it only gets worse with flight attendants. Power corrupts. Pilots aren’t immune.

  5. Mark W. Bennett

    If I ever fly commercial again, I hope that my PIC will be able to string thoughts together coherently. Not because I expect an essay at the end of the flight, but because verbal inarticulateness suggests deficits in other areas crucial to putting an aircraft safely on the ground between the lines.

  6. Shackleford Hurtmore

    “Talking on the cellphone is unbearably annoying to those around you in close quarters.”

    As it’s often said; the cure for ‘bad speech’ is more speech. Loud and from the people either side of the idiot with the cellphone. Or ideally, all the other passengers nearby singing (different) songs.

    Problem solved, all through the power of more free speech!

  7. SHG

    This isn’t a free speech issue. It has nothing to do with content, but annoyance. This is a smack the idiot in the head issue. Entirely different right at stake: the right not to be annoyed by a jerk on a plane. It’s in the 10th Amendment.

    And to borrow from @agoodreverend:

  8. John David Galt

    I don’t see why other passengers have any more business telling someone he can’t use his cell phone than telling someone he can’t talk to the folks he’s traveling with. If quiet is that important to some people, perhaps they should lobby for airlines (and restaurants, etc.) to establish “phoning” and “no phoning” zones.

    And to “Fly guy”: I’m not impressed. Your kind of nannies made flying a pain even before the TSA ruined it. Under any sensible legal regime, you’d be held liable whenever you rob someone of his paid-for right to travel.

  9. peter

    “causes a .01 degrade of the navigation, 10 cell phones can cause more than .1 of a problem.”

    As an electronic engineer with experience of designing avionic equipment and of testing EMC effects on aircraft, dog’s dangles.

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