Congress has been unable to do anything about most of the important problems facing Americans, but it’s having no trouble drumming up bipartisan support for needless regulations aimed at solving problems that don’t yet exist. The House Transportation Committee’s latest coup is a proposed ban on cellphone calls on airplanes, which would effectively curb any extension of the Federal Communications Commission’s recent decision to allow in-flight phone usage after years of prohibition. Although many people may find other passengers’ phone conversations to be annoying, so long as they do not present a safety threat, it’s not the government’s 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, “for those few hours of flight spent with 150 strangers, we can all wait to make that phone call. It’s just common sense and common courtesy.” While that seems all well and good, the federal government isn’t — and should never be — tasked with being the arbiter of common courtesy and human decency.
Notably, Shuster’s bill would only outlaw “voice communications” on airplanes, as the chairman claims to support passengers’ 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, it’s 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 — your seatmate fighting with their significant other for all six hours of a transcontinental flight — it’s 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 can’t speak to at 30,000 feet, the government should allow the entities with a financial interest in creating a comfortable in-flight experience — the airlines — 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 customers’ 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 there’s no reason planes can’t do the same by designating quiet rows or cordoning off a “cellphone cabin” with a curtain. Airlines that primarily serve business travelers may decide to adopt different policies than those that serve leisure markets — increasing options and giving consumers more power to choose their in-flight experience.
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is profitable in part because it has succeeded in creating a friendlier climate for business travelers than the airlines, and the longstanding cellphone in-flight cellphone ban was among the primary reasons why it’s easier to get work done on a train than on a plane. The FCC’s decision to relax its rules opens up a new world of possibilities for business travelers by allowing them to salvage lost travel hours by working in flight — and, yes, this work may involve the occasional phone call. Congress shouldn’t strangle this opportunity in the crib and should give the airlines the opportunity to make air travel work for all kinds of passengers.
Annoying cellphone talkers are an unfortunate side effect of living life in the digital age, and they exist everywhere we go — in elevators, in the movie theater, on trains and buses, and on airplanes. But it’s not the government’s job to tell people where they can and can’t be annoying, any more than it’s the government’s job to require passengers to shower before boarding or keep them from drinking sodas larger than 16 ounces. Rather, it’s up to management to set common-sense policies, and people to have a measure of decency, respect and consciousness.
Michael Moroney is director of Public Affairs at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.