End the In-Flight Cell Phone Ban
Federal regulations against in-flight cell-phone usage may soon be getting a makeover. Last year, the FCC proposed changes that, if adopted, would give airline carriers the option of allowing passengers the use of their mobile devices above 10,000 feet. The public comment period ended last month, leaving the FCC to mull over how millions of Americans will experience air travel in the near future.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation's Office of the Secretary recently issued an "Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" on in-flight voice communications. Even if the FCC finds that these calls are perfectly safe, the DOT -- under its "consumer protection authority" -- may restrict them by, for example, forbidding them during night flights. And if that fails, bills to ban in-flight phone calls have been introduced in both the House and the Senate.
Do cell phones on airplanes pose a safety risk that could justify continuing the FCC's ban? And, in the absence of FCC regulations, would cell-phone use during flights be so problematic that the DOT or Congress should step in, rather than letting each airline set its own policy? The answer to both questions is "no."
The current FCC rules were adopted in 1991, and they were not implemented to protect in-flight safety or over fears that cells would bring down flights. Instead, phones were banned because they confused the cell towers that they flew over. With new technology, this concern is obsolete.
Today, according to research conducted by the FAA, the safety risks of in-flight use of communications devices range from infinitesimal to nonexistent. A 2012 FAA survey of aviation authorities found no cases of air rage or flight-attendant interference from passengers using cell phones. And FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a statement that "we need to update this rule for the benefit of consumers and to reflect accurately changing technical realities." The FCC approved the initial proposal to end the ban in a 3-2 vote.
In repealing the ban, the FCC would not endorse the use of cells on planes; airlines would remain free to ban phones if that's what consumers wanted. As the FCC has noted, so long as there is no safety issue, it is "not within the scope of FCC's responsibility" to handle such a minor issue. The DOT, however, is thinking about regulating in-flight calls under the guise of consumer protection.
But in-flight communications would not, as some naysayers predict, frequently cause chatterboxes to talk away for hours on a long flight. Many international flights allow travelers to use their phones in the air; as The Economist has noted, texts are most popular during these flights, and the average call length is 2.5 minutes, with nearly all calls being made during daytime flights. Passengers are grateful to be able to communicate with loved ones on the ground about arrival details and tend not to abuse the privilege.
The facts are clear. The safety risks for in-flight cell use are minimal and the case that it is a public nuisance is not sound. Besides, whether verbal communications could be a nuisance is an issue not for federal public policy, but instead for individual air carriers. Some airlines will excitedly usher in this new technology. Others, like Delta Airlines, have already voiced concerns and plan to restrict in-flight calling. And some may find new ways to accommodate talkative passengers like arranging them all toward the back of the plane -- similar to what Amtrak currently does. Whatever happens, federal bureaucrats have no place in this decision and should focus on more serious issues when it comes to travel.
At the end of the day, this is an issue of one-size-fits-all federal policy for a small aspect of air travel versus the competitive marketplace. Are the customer-service concerns of airlines really the place for federal regulation?
Matthew La Corte is a Young Voices Advocate studying economics at Hofstra University.