April 19, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Congress' Airplane Cellphone Ban Should Be Grounded | Commentary

Congress has been unable to do anything about most of the important problems facing Americans, but itís having no trouble drumming up bipartisan support for needless regulations aimed at solving problems that donít yet exist. The House Transportation Committeeís latest coup is a proposed ban on cellphone calls on airplanes, which would effectively curb any extension of the Federal Communications Commissionís recent decision to allow in-flight phone usage after years of prohibition. Although many people may find other passengersí phone conversations to be annoying, so long as they do not present a safety threat, itís not the governmentís business to legislate them.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the committee and principal sponsor of the bill (HR 3676), recently wrote that, ďfor those few hours of flight spent with 150 strangers, we can all wait to make that phone call. Itís just common sense and common courtesy.Ē While that seems all well and good, the federal government isnít ó and should never be ó tasked with being the arbiter of common courtesy and human decency.

Notably, Shusterís bill would only outlaw ďvoice communicationsĒ on airplanes, as the chairman claims to support passengersí rights to text, email, stream and execute the hundreds of other functions that smartphones can do. But by attempting to draw a bright red line in the sand, the bill runs into problems. For example, itís unclear whether a passenger would be able to dial into and listen to a conference call, which is functionally identical to listening to streaming music. And while the nightmare scenario is easy to envision ó your seatmate fighting with their significant other for all six hours of a transcontinental flight ó itís no worse than that same fight occurring between two passengers in adjoining seats, which would remain legal even with this law in place.

Rather than attempting to tell passengers who they can and canít speak to at 30,000 feet, the government should allow the entities with a financial interest in creating a comfortable in-flight experience ó the airlines ó set their own policies. For example, the concept of a smoke-free cross-country flight seemed radical until Northwest became the first airline to ban smoking entirely in 1988, over a year before the government banned smoking on domestic flights. Throughout the 1990s, airlines gradually adopted their own smoking restrictions on international flights as they realized going smoke-free was a financial winner in a competitive marketplace.

If allowed to innovate and create their own cellphone policies in response to the market, airlines may very well follow the lead of Amtrak, which created the quiet car to resolve customersí noise problems without having to run to Congress. On trains, those who seek quiet and those who want to get work done over the phone can coexist in peace, and thereís no reason planes canít do the same by designating quiet rows or cordoning off a ďcellphone cabinĒ with a curtain. Airlines that primarily serve business travelers may decide to adopt different policies than those that serve leisure markets ó increasing options and giving consumers more power to choose their in-flight experience.

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