Allowing Cellphone Use in Airplanes Won't Create Chaos

We can work it out for ourselves.


When it was announced last month that the Federal Aviation Administration was relaxing the rules on personal electronic devices during take-off and landing on commercial passenger flights, Americans rejoiced. No longer would we have to suffer the indignity of staring blankly at the tray table before us for the 15 minutes it takes a flight to reach cruising altitude, or worse, touch ink-stained dead tree bits to occupy ourselves. Yet when the Federal Communications Commission soon thereafter similarly announced that it to was reconsidering its prohibitions on in-flight cell phone use, all hell broke loose.

"Imagine being in the middle seat trapped between two idiots yabbering on about their love life or whatever else, or how important they are for five hours on a transcontinental flight—it's going to be chaos," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), echoing the sentiment of most Americans according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll.

The New York Times, USA Today, and many other news media ran opinion pieces with the consistent theme that flying was already a pretty miserable experience and that cell phones would only make it worse. And the flight attendant's union also opposed changing the rules calling such a move potentially "unsafe" and noting in a statement that "flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment."

Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the FCC, found himself in crisis communications mode just a couple of weeks into his tenure, saying in a statement that he too would rather not see any calls on planes. The FCC's ban on in-flight cellphone use, however, is a technical one meant to address radio interference, not politeness. "[A]dvances in technology likely no longer warrant—on a technological basis—the prohibition of in-flight phone use with the appropriate on-board equipment," Wheeler said.

And therein lies the rub. If a technology is safe, but potentially annoying or discomforting to most people, should the government ban its use? Most people seem to think so, including putative small-government Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) who said he would introduce legislation to ban in-flight chatting if the FCC loosened its regulations. What this misses is that the government is not the only one that can make and enforce rules.

What deregulation like that being pursued by the FAA and FCC does is create new options and introduce choice where there was none before. Cellphones don't work at 30,000 feet unassisted; they can't communicate with cell towers. In order for cellphones to work in the air, airlines have to install special equipment. Today they are not allowed to install that equipment, and all FCC deregulation would do is give them the option.

The FAA's move to allow use of electronics during take-off and landing worked the same way. Airlines can still decide not to allow device use on their airplanes, and indeed it took a while for each airline to change its rules to permit device use. Deregulation just means airlines now have the option. This means that if the FCC were to change its cellphone rules, folks like Sen. Alexander could nevertheless fly airlines like Delta, which announced that in response to customer demand it won't ever allow calls.

If that demand is there, as it certainly seems to be, airlines will respond with private rules and bans on cellphone use without government's help. And private rules have the advantage of being much more varied and flexible than the difficult-to-change, one-size-fits-all rules we can get from government. We can see this at work in Europe and Asia, which already allow cellphone use in-flight. According to the New York Times, "Virgin Atlantic allows unlimited data connections, but it lets only six people talk on a cellphone at once. Some Lufthansa flights allow data connections through a cellphone, but no phone calls."

Even on flights that do allow cell phone use, it won't be "chaos" as Rep. DeFazio predicts. Humans have a pretty good history of eliciting good behavior from each other through the development of norms without the need for codified rules–public or private. According to the FAA, civil authorities in countries were in-flight cellphone use is permitted reported no "cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations."

The likely reason is simply that very few people are so shameless or tone-deaf as DeFazio and Alexander imagine. Just as we don't see boom boxes blaring now that electronic devices are allowed on take-off and landing, we'll probably see very few people on their phones "babbling about last night's love life [or] bathroom plans," as Alexander put it. Indeed, Emirates has no restrictions on the number of passengers who can talk on their phones, yet few apparently do.

Before reactively banning a potentially uncomfortable technology, how about first giving markets and human norms a shot? If nothing else, it would be worth seeing if a problem really emerges before foregoing the benefits of the technology. In most cases the likely outcome will be that imagined horrors won't materialize, and if some problems do crop up, human adaptation, norms, and private rules are often more than enough to deal with them.