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. .