Stanley Bing

Great big cell phones in the sky

Fortune's Stanley Bing envisions a future without protection from inconsiderate airline passengers.

By Stanley Bing, Fortune contributor

(Fortune Magazine) -- This is the statement of the foreman of the jury that recently rendered its decision in the trial that resulted from the events that took place on Flight 14 from New York to Los Angeles on Jan. 8, 2011. I thought it best to get the facts on the record, since the controversy after the trial, and the hysterical way it was covered in the media, might distort what exactly happened and why we reached the verdict we did.

On the evening in question, Flight 14 was at 37,500 feet over Missouri, about three hours into a six-hour flight scheduled to land at 8:25 P.M., West Coast time. Night was falling. The flight was full, and most people were reading, sleeping or watching personal DVDs. Drinks and dinner service had been completed in business and first class, and the movie was up on the screens.

Ronald D. Nofziger, 52, a midlevel sales executive for Time Warner's AOL division, was in seat 11J, having been upgraded from a coach seat at the gate. From the moment the plane took off, Mr. Nofziger had been on his cell phone, talking about matters both business and personal. This was not against either airline policy or the law, since cellular telephone usage on airplanes was legalized in late 2010.

Mr. Nofziger had availed himself of the free beverages offered those in the premier-class portions of the aircraft. Flight attendants testified that he had imbibed two double Glenlivet Scotches on the rocks, and when that brand ran out, had moved over to Dewars.

Mr. Nofziger's phone conversations, which had begun in a polite and muted tone, increased in volume till they were audible throughout the cabin. Topics included his company's confidential sales figures and battles over office space. There was a salacious discussion with somebody named Heather, who was clearly not his wife, a fight with his wife about her generally suspicious nature and as the plane reached the center of the U.S., a series of chats with golfing buddies so hilarious that Mr. Nofziger's raucous laugh could be heard from one end of the airplane to the other.

According to several of those who testified, it was this obnoxious jocularity that escalated the crisis to its eventual lethal proportions. "He had this squeaky guffaw that ended on a hooting, raspy inhalation," said one passenger. "I was wearing Bose noise-blocking headphones, and it pierced right through them." Flight attendants who were asked to intercede could do nothing, since Mr. Nofziger, though inconveniencing the entire plane, was well within his legal rights in doing so.

The awakening of the Brautigan baby was the spark that set off the powder keg. The infant had boarded the plane, thrown up its formula and screamed for an hour before lapsing into a fitful, crabby sleep. Somewhere just past the airspace over St. Louis, Mr. Nofziger uttered a piercing shriek of glee. The baby woke and began to howl, at which point Mr. Brautigan, leaving his bundle of joy and sputum with Mrs. Brautigan, made his way from coach to business armed with an unopened bottle of pinot noir from the beverage cart. He arrived at seat 11J and in a low, threatening tone suggested that the cell calls cease.

In reply, Mr. Nofziger extended his index finger in the air and continued his conversation.

bing_airplane.03.jpg
Is using a cell phone on an airplane a danger? Yes, indeed.

Mr. Edward Hadley, who had been occupying the back seat in first class, joined Mr. Brautigan, holding a plastic knife and fork. He, too, requested that Mr. Nofziger have some consideration for others. At this, Mr. Nofziger made a critical error and raised another, less cordial digit.

Whether the bottle of pinot slipped or was actually swung remains unclear, but what is not in dispute is that Mr. Nofziger was struck over the head and rendered unconscious. At some point after that, a plastic fork was shoved up his nose, and his cell phone was trod underfoot by a number of people. A crowd formed, and the poor fellow was poked, hit and mashed by numerous individuals until he was little more than a mucilaginous blob collecting in the bottom of his reclining seat.

After the brief trial of Mr. Brautigan, Mr. Hadley and several others who were involved, we jurors were out for just 15 minutes before rendering our verdict of not guilty on all counts.

Perhaps after reading this account you will understand why. Cell phones on airplanes? When the law abandons all reason and judgment, I believe there isn't a jury in the world that will convict those who take appropriate steps, no matter how dire, to set things right.

Stanley Bing's latest book, "100 Bullshit Jobs & And How to Get Them" (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.

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