When the Federal Communications Commission voted in December to pursue an end to its ban on in-flight cellphone calls, the ensuing backlash was easy to predict. Of more than 1,200 public comments on the proposal, the Associated Press reported, almost all objected to lifting the ban. That squares with public opinion polls that have found far more respondents opposing cellphone conversations on airplanes than favoring them. The more frequently passengers fly, the more hostile to the idea they are.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has argued that whether to allow voice calls during flights is something the airlines can work out for themselves, now that the old rationale for federal regulation — fears that airborne phone use would interfere with cell towers on the ground — is no longer a concern.
But a different federal agency has offered a persuasive reason to maintain the rule. The Department of Transportation, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration, is suggesting that restricting mobile calls helps keep air travel orderly. Voices get louder during cellphone conversations — an irritant that many would find maddening if there were no escaping it while aloft. The Association of Flight Attendants has advised the transportation agency that allowing in-flight cell calls would increase tension among passengers. Pity the poor flight attendant who must keep the peace when the passengers in 12A and 12C get fed up with 12B’s strident cellphone rant.
The technological case for silencing cellphones during air travel was always thin. The social case is as strong as ever.