Why the feds don’t need to save the cellphone ban

Coming soon to an air passenger next to you?
(Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Speaking as someone who’s been known to whap a neighboring audience member with a rolled-up concert program for continuing to talk after the conductor has stepped up to the podium, I must say that the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to consider lifting the ban on in-flight cellphone calls has gripped me with the chill hand of fear.

Like many other Americans, including pretty much every member of the FCC itself, I find the thought of a neighboring air passenger “yapping at 35,000 feet” ghastly. The quote is from FCC Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler’s opening statement at the agency’s meeting Thursday. That’s the one at which the commissioners voted to take public comments on a proposal to lift the ban.

A couple of things we should all keep in mind, before eying the emergency exits on board. First: although opinion polls often show that some 30% of respondents favor ending the ban on in-flight calls, it’s a fair bet that few of you know anyone personally who holds that position and who you don’t secretly think is a jerk, anyway.


No sensible person really wants the ban on voice calls lifted. Anyone who’s flown, especially in the modern cram-the-planes-full era, can easily imagine the pain and suffering to be caused by even a couple of “yapping” passengers. Audio companies have earned millions selling noise-suppression headphones to screen out engine noise, squalling babies, in-fight announcements, and inane conversations in the row behind you, and I can tell you from bitter experience that even a $300 Bose doesn’t fully do the trick.

Regulators’ concerns about passenger reactions in a claustrophobic cabin to an electronically empowered loudmouth are typically shrouded by bureaucratic terminology alluding to “public safety issues,” but we all know what they mean. “I’m pretty sure that I could resist the urge to stab a fellow passenger,” FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai remarked Thursday, though his words sounded a little doubtful.

Second: There’s a long way to go before this could happen. The FCC vote Thursday was to accept public comment. They’ve already been getting an earful. Even if the FCC lifts the ban, the final decision is up to the Federal Aviation Administration, which already has said it will be taking comments itself. Even if the FAA lifts the ban, the final final decision will be left up to individual airlines, which would have to install special equipment in their planes to manage the change, and then could lift or maintain the ban on-board selectively as they wish.

Finally, the FCC proposal is strictly technological. (After all, the FCC is chiefly a technical agency.) Its proposal recognizes that the means exist to manage cellphone signals on board so they don’t interfere with aircraft systems or terrestrial networks. If that’s so, the agency says--and that’s the topic on which it’s soliciting comment--then there’s no need for a ban on the technology. The customer service aspects of the thing--they’re the FAA’s diocese.

The best guess is that lifting the ban on cellphone conversations will never happen. Most passengers who speak out will be against it. If and when the airlines get around to setting policy, they’re sure to hear also from pilots and flight attendants warning against the threat to on-board tranquillity.

But who talks on cellphones anymore, anyway? In the old days, big business might grouse about the cost of having executives silenced for five hours at a stretch, but texting and email now are capable of filling that void, perhaps even more effectively today than voice.


Our prediction is that sometime soon, cellphones will be cleared for use during flight, that the airlines will install the necessary equipment and turn it into a selling point, that they’ll ban voice communications, and that they’ll charge you an arm and a leg for access to the onboard network that allows you to text away on your smartphone until your fingers bleed. And everyone will be happy.

Are you for or against lifting the ban on callphones in flight?