For years the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has restricted cellphone use in planes on the pretext that it would disturb mobile networks on the ground. Now that pretext has crumbled, but people are outraged that the FCC would dare bring its rules in line with reality, allowing airlines and their customers to decide whether to use cellphones while aloft.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

“Forcing [passengers] to listen to the inane, loud, private, personal conversations of a stranger is perhaps the worst idea the FCC has come up with to date,” reads a WhiteHouse.gov petition with over a thousand signatures so far.

“When you’re on an airplane, it’s kind of nice to be disconnected,” Cody Evol, a frequent-flying PayPal designer who opposes the rule change, told the Los Angeles Times.

So the government should, without any technical basis, continue to restrict the everyday convenience of texting or checking in with relatives? The FCC should require that the only way to get e-mail or surf the Web while aloft is to pay some in-flight WiFi company? Washington should force hassle and, possibly, added cost on air travelers who don’t want to disconnect? And all because some people have a funhouse-mirror vision of the in-flight consequences or can’t disconnect themselves by pressing the off switch?

In reality, the FCC wouldn’t force anyone to sit next to an uninhibited Clueless character. It would allow airlines to experiment with in-flight cellphone use, if they wanted to. Carriers could have any policy their customers demanded: no cellphone use at all; no voice calls; just texting; only a certain number of conversations at a time; the establishment of quiet cabins or quiet flights. Regardless of each airline’s policy, roaming rates would apply to phone and data use, so people wouldn’t blab on for hours.

It’s a shame, in fact, that it wouldn’t be even easier to connect if airlines decided to allow passengers to use cellphones. Flights would be a lot more pleasant for most people if they could tap away on their smartphones as they would anywhere else — and, yes, make the occasional call. Nearly all in-flight cellphone use would be silent, because people would mostly text or use the data connection.

The incidental call would happen, of course. On the buses that constantly run up and down the East Coast, simply telling people at the beginning of each trip to keep any phone conversations short and quiet usually keeps the peace. In the air, the cabin crew would be the ultimate arbiters of in-flight mores, because, at least for now, airlines would have to install new equipment to make planes into tiny cell towers, and they would have total control over the connection.

Weigh a realistic assessment of the possibility of occasional annoyance against slashing the huge amounts of time Americans lose to abject boredom on lengthy flights.

Regardless of where you come out, though, it’s not the FCC’s job to determine the desirability of that future, or of the steps that would lead to it. Now that we know there is no reasonable technical concern, it’s past time the government let us make our own choices about telecommunications above 10,000 feet.

Follow Stephen Stromberg on Twitter: @strombergsteve

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.