In Our View: Cellphones Taking Flight?

With safety concerns assuaged, there's no reason to ban calls on airplanes



Eventually, your only refuge from cellphones might be to climb a mountaintop — the kind that is inhabited by a bearded, aged guru who answers questions such as, “What is the meaning of life?”

Then again, said guru will probably just whip out a cellphone and call a friend to get the answer for you. What else would you expect in our interconnected, wired-in, can’t-endure-a-moment-of-solitude world? There are few places in which to escape the blather of cellphone chatter; there are few refuges from the real world.

Airplanes long have served as just such a refuge. Well, kind of. They don’t exactly offer solitude, but they have offered freedom from cellphones — both yours and, more important, those of other people.

That soon could change. The Federal Communications Commission is considering lifting a ban on in-flight phone calls by passengers, meaning that you soon could be privy to the dinner plans or the romantic foibles of the person sitting next to you for that 5.5-hour nonstop from Portland to New York.

In many cases, of course, having a root canal would be more palatable than listening to somebody else talk on the phone. Some people are oblivious to the excessive volume of their voice or the banality of the conversations. Not you, naturally. Your conversations are witty and insightful. But other people often are far less considerate.

Yet while sitting near somebody who is talking on the phone can range between minor inconvenience and major annoyance, there really is little reason for the FCC to not allow cellphones on planes. The concern has been that sending or receiving transmissions could interfere with instrumentation on the plane or on the ground. But airlines in Europe and Asia have demonstrated that the practice is safe if the proper technology is on board, and that means the FCC’s rules are outdated.

If the change happens, the real impact will be up to consumers and the airlines. Delta has announced that it will not permit in-flight phone calls, even if allowed by the FCC, and other airlines could follow suit; if customers flock to airlines that block cellphone use, then other airlines will adopt the same policy. Carriers also could designate particular sections of the plane for phone use, or have no-call flights, or identify certain times during the flight for phone use. They also could allow passengers to access data or text messages but prohibit phone conversations. Only one thing is certain — airlines will come up with some way to generate revenue from it.

As for passengers, well, you can’t always rely upon civilized behavior. That’s simply a fact of life. The same people who think nothing of blaring car stereos at stoplights likely won’t be considerate of the captive audience provided by fellow airline passengers.

While you can’t always rely upon civilized behavior, you also can’t truly legislate it. Conventional wisdom holds that people are growing more crass and less considerate of others. There probably is some truth to that. Society seems to be increasingly self-absorbed, yet part of that perception could be the result of an ever more crowded world. The more people in the vicinity, the more likely it is that some of them will perpetrate minor annoyances.

Flight attendants, we’re guessing, are aghast at the FCC’s proposal. The last thing they need to worry about is becoming the cellphone police when passengers become belligerent. But the reality is that if there are no safety concerns surrounding cellphone use on airplanes, then there is no sound reason to ban the practice. Putting up with a few jerks is one of the hazards of a free society.