Cell Phones on Planes: A Federal Matter?

by on July 15, 2005 · 12 comments

Well, for once I find myself in perfect agreement with Democratic FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein about something. In a Wall Street Journal (pg. B4) story today about FCC prohibitions on cell phone use during airline flights, Adelstein argues that, “Our job is to determine if it’s technologically feasible and safe. Our job is not to decide etiquette. We’re not Emily Post.”

Amen brother! It’s one thing for the FCC to determine the technical standards for spectrum uses and users, and then even adjudicate interference disputes among those uses. It is quite another matter for the agency to go a step further and determine whether a certain use of the spectrum is socially acceptable.

Now don’t get me wrong, I detest the idea of cell phone chatter on long airline flights as much as the next person. The idea of a gabby jerk in the seat next to me screaming into their cell phone to talk above the already noisy jet engines, just makes me cringe.

But that doesn’t mean this should be a matter of federal concern. Indeed, self-regulatory experiments by private carriers would make a lot of sense here. Understanding the frustration (perhaps even violence) that cell phone gabbing in the cabin could induce, most airlines will put policies in place to limit cell phone use.

For example, certainly flights could be designated as “cell phone free” or “cell phone limited.” I can imagine that in an effort to appeal to many business travelers on high-volume routes (like NYC to DC or Chicago to Atlanta), some airlines would offer a few morning and evening flights that allowed unlimited cell phone use, while prohibiting calls on most other flights.

Alternatively, on larger aircraft, we might see the return of an in-flight lounge area (although probably much smaller than the ones of the past). Perhaps these cell phone lounges would be no bigger than current airplane bathrooms (perhaps they would be the bathrooms!) Regardless, these are just a few options that carriers could explore. They are certainly preferable to a federal etiquette regulatory regime for cell phone usage.

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