Various government officials are crafting new policies on in-flight cell-phone use, the combined effect of which would be to allow Web surfing and text messaging from airplanes, but not voice phone calls. In other words, two steps forward, one step back.
There’s no scientific reason to limit any sort of cell-phone use on board, so the Federal Communications Commission can’t pretend that it has the grounds to limit it. The Transportation Department, though, might pick up the policy from there, banning voice calls under its “Aviation Consumer Protection Authority.” And if DOT doesn’t act, Congress might. Lawmakers have already proposed new restrictions on in-flight calling.
Instead, they should all butt out. People fret that, absent government restrictions, the tweens in the next row over will freely dial up their BFFs all flight long. That’s unlikely, and not just because no one under 25 calls anyone anymore. Airlines will have total control over the cellular connection, if they choose to have one at all, so they could enforce all sorts of rules to adjust for customers’ tastes. Judging by public polls and the intensely negative reaction to the potential of in-flight cell-phone calling, many airlines probably won’t even consider allowing voice conversations. If some do, they will most likely move with high sensitivity to those worried about the noise. They might experiment with separate cabins or limit the number of calling-enabled planes. Even then, callers’ roaming charges will be high, discouraging long conversations. These are decisions airlines and their customers should be making, which is the best way to satisfy the most people — including, I hope, those of us who want to be able to make brief calls, perhaps to let our relatives know that the flight we’re on is late, without annoying people around us.
People’s discomfort with the government removing its restrictions on in-flight phone use is beyond exaggerated, and it’s hardly a rational basis on which to base any federal policy. Instead of enforcing politeness, a job best left to airlines, flight attendants and individual passengers, it should simply loosen up. And so should the critics.