FCC's reconsideration of cell-phone flight ban not exactly winning cheers

The FAA received plenty of kudos last month for finally acknowledging what everyone has known for years — that iPads and laptops don’t actually interfere with flight operations, and that the ban on use during takeoffs and landings was absurd. They passed the buck on cell-phone usage to the FCC, though, which has long been concerned over the impact of connections on flights to the cell networks.  Yesterday, the FCC announced that they would reconsider that ban:

The Federal Communications Commission said it will soon propose allowing passengers to use their cellphones on airplanes, setting up a debate that will pit the technically possible against the socially tolerable.

While cellphone use would still be restricted during takeoff and landing, the proposal would lift an FCC ban on airborne calls and cellular-data use by passengers once a flight reaches 10,000 feet.

That would remove a regulatory hurdle to in-flight calls, but it would be up to the airlines themselves whether to allow them. Airlines have said they would approach the matter cautiously because of strong objections from their customers. The carriers also would have to install equipment on their planes to communicate with cellphone towers on the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration said last month that it would allow expanded use of electronic devices during flights. Technical concerns about the airborne use of gadgets have faded. But the debate about the social merits of allowing people to make phone calls with a captive audience in the close confines of an airplane cabin promises to be vigorous. At least one FCC commissioner’s office was flooded Thursday by negative reaction to the proposal, an aide said.

The Washington Post reported on the backlash this morning:

Within hours of the announcement, consumers flooded the agency with protests.

One FCC commissioner received hundreds of e-mails complaining that the move would lead to unbearable noise pollution, an aide said. Passengers are already crammed into smaller seats and tighter rows, and being forced to listen to one another’s calls would be yet another indignity, they wrote.

petition quickly went up on the White House Web site Thursday, asking the Obama administration to stop the effort. “This would make an already cranky, uncomfortable travel experience exponentially worse, and as a frequent flier and concerned citizen, I think the administration needs to nip this in the bud,” a resident from Richmond wrote.

There is a qualitative difference between allowing electronic devices such as tablets and laptops to operate during flight, and having your seatmate chatter all flight long into a cellphone about his personal life.  The attendants hate the idea of cell phones in flight, because thanks to the nature of economy class, people are already cranky enough being crowded together like sardines for several hours of flight.  If cell phone calls are allowed, it’s only going to make the situation worse — which is why the airline unions opposed a similar proposal in 2004, and are likely to oppose it again this time around.

It’s worth pointing out that even if the FCC changes its regulations to allow for cell phone use, the airlines will not be required to allow it on their flights.  There could be some competitive pressure if one or two airlines do allow it, but so far there doesn’t appear to be anywhere near the customer demand for cell-phone use on flights as there was for unrestricted tablet/laptop use.  In fact, customers might try avoiding flights where cell phone use is allowed, or start demanding a cell-free section on flights to avoid at least some of the annoyance.

Listening to these conversations in the gate area is bad enough. Do we really need to be captive to them during flight, too?