Secretary Foxx should stay out of inflight cell call issue

by Aaron Karp
Jan 03, 2014

DOT should not be in the business of regulating passengers' manners.

Should regulating the manners of airline passengers be part of the US Department of Transportation’s area of responsibility?

New US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx seems to think so, indicating last month that DOT’s “aviation consumer protection authority” could lead the department to ban inflight mobile phone calls even though cellular voice communications do not pose a threat to aircraft safety. DOT regulating inflight mobile calls wouldn’t be that much different from the US Food and Drug Administration regulating cell phone calls in restaurants. Or DOT banning animated conversations between seatmates on flights.

It may be annoying if the guy sitting at the table next to you is yakking away on his phone while you are trying to enjoy a quiet Friday evening dinner at your favorite restaurant, but it hardly warrants federal government involvement. Airline travel means close contact with a variety of people in sometimes stressful situations. Some of those people may be rude or inconsiderate. But isn’t that the case in much of life? And is it really so much worse to be sitting on a plane behind someone making a phone call as sitting behind a couple of buddies who enjoyed their time at the airport bar a little too much and are now loudly bantering with each other? Should DOT regulate the number of drinks you can have at the airport bar during a layover or the tone of voice you use on an aircraft in an effort to make sure no airline passenger ever has to deal with a rude or annoying person?

For those who haven’t followed the inflight cell phone saga in the US over the last couple of months, here is a quick recap:

  1. FAA decided to allow portable electronic devices (PEDs) to be used in most phases of flight, stating what has long been well known by airlines and aircraft manufacturers: there is no safety risk. But the agency left the issue of inflight cellular phone calls aside, noting that it is a Federal Communications Commission issue.
  2. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler then put out this statement in support of lifting the inflight cell phone call ban (or at least considering doing so): “Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”
  3. The US media reacted as if Wheeler had announced his intent to shoot planes down from the sky. Controversy ensued. Inflight cell calls became an easy, red meat topic for debate on talk shows and in editorials.
  4. Wheeler backtracked, sort of, explaining that he doesn’t “want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else.” But FCC would move forward with putting the proposal to end the inflight cell phone call ban up for public comment, he said. However, he assured, “As always, we will review input from the public before taking any final action.” He noted that if FCC were to lift the ban, airlines would have to install the proper equipment on aircraft to allow for cell calls and each airline would be free to determine its own policy, keeping in place a ban if it so chose.
  5. While FAA (which accounts for most DOT employees) had punted on the issue previously, the controversy prompted Foxx to reinsert the department into the discussion. DOT will “determine if allowing these calls is fair to consumers,” Foxx said in December, adding that DOT “will now begin a process that will look at the possibility of banning these inflight calls.”

As Wheeler has pointed out, there is little-to-no role for the US government to play on inflight cell calls going forward. “We simply propose that because new technology makes the old rule obsolete, the FCC should get government out from between airlines and their passengers,” he said. “If the basis for the [inflight cell call ban] rule is no longer valid, then the rule is no longer valid. It’s that simple.”

FAA was right the first time to get out of the way. Foxx is wrong to get DOT (and FAA) back involved.

My guess is that most US airlines will be uninterested in allowing their passengers to use cell phones inflight for voice calls (Delta Air Lines has already gone this way), at least for a while and especially with public opinion seemingly so strongly against it. But if an airline wants to offer, say, an “office-in-the-sky” LAX-JFK flight that allows passengers to stay in touch coast-to-coast however they want, including by using cell phones, why should the government stop it?

Airlines quietly may want the US government to maintain the inflight call ban so the issue remains off their plates, but that is no reason to keep the ban in place.

More broadly, regulating basic manners (where there is no safety issue) is not, and should not become, a government responsibility. Even under the guise of “consumer protection,” enacting a federal regulation against cell phone calls inflight is quite a stretch. What’s next? A DOT rule prohibiting the person sitting next to you on a flight from engaging in conversation if you’d rather sleep or read?

The only reason this is an issue is that the inflight cell phone ban is already in place. But the ban put in place in 1991 makes absolutely no sense from the perspective of 2014 and what we now know about avionics and cell phones. To perpetuate the ban—or institute a new ban for non-safety “consumer protection” reasons as Foxx has suggested—is, well, mindless.

But even if banning inflight calls were somehow justified, doing so would become more and more pointless over time. Why? Studies are showing that, particularly in developed countries where smart phone penetration is high (such as the US, Western Europe and Japan, which all have mature air passenger markets), voice calls are continuing to decline, both in duration and frequency. Texting, emailing, instant messaging, social media, etc., are increasingly replacing many voice calls.

Given this trend, is it realistic to believe that in coming years aircraft will be full of passengers chatting on phones?

In the future, if you do wind up on a plane next to a loud phone talker, you could politely ask him or her to wind up the conversation. Or shoot a disapproving glare at the loud talker. But don’t make a federal case out of it.

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