Americans Are Overwhelmingly Against Use of Cell Phones on Planes. Should They Be?

The public comment period for the FCC proposal to lift the 23 year old ban on inflight cell phone use has closed, and public comments are overwhelmingly against a change.

The FCC Chairman believes that the safety rationale for the ban no longer exists. Airlines should be able to ban the practice, or find accommodations like a no cell phone use seating section. But it’s hard to justify government making the use of inflight cell phones illegal without a compelling safety issue. The FCC voted 3-2 to consider lifting the ban.

With such a tight majority favoring even consideration of an end to the ban, public opposition could sway them.

And even if the FCC lifts the ban, the Department of Transportation which regulates airlines could still act.

As, of course, could individual carriers. Some have stated they won’t allow cell phones inflight even if it’s no longer illegal for them to do so.

But is this public hysteria justified?

People can give themselves peace and minimize disturbance without resort of regulation or legislation. That’s what noise cancelling headphones are for.

Airplanes aren’t that peaceful now, anyway. Planes are noise. Children scream (no regulations address that!). And Seatmates talk loudly to each other. Are cell phones actually worse than this?

What’s more, the parade of horribles is empirically disproven because planes had airfones for years without diaster. And foreign airlines have allowed inflight cell phone use for years without fights breaking out.

Inflight cell phone use could even be good — for important business calls that improve productivity, or even imagine an emergency flight, a passenger desperately trying to reach a sick loved one. They might not make it on-time. This would allow final words to be spoken. Surely some calls can actually matter enough to be justified. It doesn’t even have to be so extreme. A parent can call their child to tuck them in at night, even while they’re on the road for a business trip. Dead time is a great time to make the call to your parents you’ve been putting off for too long.

I might even find inflight cell phone use entertaining, and wouldn’t mind eavesdropping on a famous person or two on my flights departing Los Angeles… It would make my twitter stream more interesting, at least.

Would lifting the ban — given that the justification for government’s role no longer exists — really be so bad?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I was on a bus, and a lady was on a conf call, dealing with a legal matter and trying to get someone fired. While you may have important business, keep it to yourself please, or ask for the upgraded seats with the Cone of Silence option. Thank you.

  2. I could be very wrong, but in my opinion the vote against cell phone usage is likely a vote against the possible overuse/abuse in general and specifically against the loudmouth, self-important dooshbags in F yelling to “BUY”! or “SELL”!
    In all seriousness, I could see texting as a decent compromise rather than a lot of people making calls simply because they’re bored.

  3. Aren’t there phones already on the plane that people can use (very $$$ though)? I recall during 9/11 people in those planes were calling their loved ones stating the plane had been hijacked, etc.

  4. if its a public nuisance, the gov’t can have a roll in extending the ban.

    you clearly don’t fly coach all that often. being literally 2 inches from your seatmate, by the wings and engines, and having them have to talk OVER the admittedly noisy nearby engines is extremely different from sitting in first class, away from most of the noise, with more space, and a different group of people.

    cell phones conversations would add considerable noise. And btw there are a lot of economy travelers that aren’t interested in (or maybe can’t afford) purchasing a $300+ set of noise canceling headphones.

  5. Let people use their cell phones in planes and you will see the Air Marshalls be very busy on these planes. People will get into fights against others. Wait and see!!! How about you trying to take advantage of that first class suite and your next neighboor is screaming on the phone fighting with his girlfrind that is miles away. Enjoy it!!!!

  6. If airlines charge for it then it’ll be fine – but if not there will be continuous chatting that will drive people to homicidal behavior. The old airphones were no problem because they were expensive.

    Just sit back and think about how many people around you are talking on their phones right up until (and sometimes after) the doors close. Those people will never stop.

    It’s bad enough being forced to listen to “important” business conversations carried on loudly in the lounges, not to mention the other irrelevancies that people seem to feel they need to share with the rest of us.

    Restrict phone use to SMS-only and I’ll be fine with it. Or charge for it so that it’s only used for short and actually important calls.

  7. I do not want to sit next to someone blabbing about a biz deal or last night or Sundays game etc , amazes me how people can not live without a phone 24/7 and sounds like you are one of them — you say get “That’s what noise cancelling headphones are for” I say if call is so important DO NOT GET ON THE PLANE

  8. Don’t people call already? I just use voip calling on wifi with my smartphone, instead of cellular. It goes something like this-

    “Hi! You’ll never guess where I’m calling from! The plane! No, no- not the train- the plane! I’m at 38,000 ft! Isn’t that great? Let me talk to mom.

    Guess where I’m calling from!”

  9. Main issues I see:

    #1: People talk 2x louder on a cell phone than to their seat mates. It’s just the way it is, very few can help it. And, like screaming kids, noise canceling headphones only go so far.

    #2: As long as it is as expensive as the air phone, I could care less. Anecdotally, I believe that’s why it works in the middle east. When you’re talking about spending $3 a minute you are not going to talk gate to gate. However, no one will breach the numbers.

    #3: The optics are poor (“First carrier to implement something everyone hates!”) butI think the economics of it are worse. Cost per minute is air phone level, cost to install if wifi level, and the result is net loss. US carriers lose enough money without opening themselves up to late-night talk show mocking.

  10. First question, will they even work. Will separate technology and new towers be required to work at 30k feet. Can there be an international roaming charged applied which would make most people not want to use it. For me I would want the option, but I know I can get loud at times, or so my wife tells me.

    One last comment no matter what,they should be restricted as should all devices during take off and landing. I think all passengers should be aware of their surroundings during these times and not tune out with headphones what is going on in the cabin. Although I hope I never get to experience anything bad on a flight I would not want to be behind a nose canceling headphone when I am being told to evacuate or brace,

  11. Gary,

    “Noise Canceling” headsets don’t cancel human speech, they generally cancel out low frequency effects. I’m not sure they’d help a whole lot here. And yes, I’ve owned a pair of Bose QC2’s for awhile.

  12. I do not want to listen to half the plane talk about what they’re having for dinner, or the fight they had with their girlfriend/boyfriend, etc.

  13. Leonard: Yes, it will/does work. The plane basically has it’s own in-cabin low-power cell site that the passenger’s mobile phones connect to, and the plane-based cell site then either connects to a grid of terrestrial based stations (that are designed with antenna’s that focus the communications “up” to airplanes) or to a satellite based network (for international flights).

  14. For the most part, flights are not that noisy. Sometimes you have two loud mouths behind you that have no concept of anything but themselves. Most of the time, people keep to themselves and sit quietly.
    Cell phones would absolutely take this over the top. The last thing that I want to listen to is Brooklyn Betty,with her horrendous accent, blab to her sister Long Island Lucy about nothing for 2 hours.

  15. It’s bad enough that everyone has to hear these self important loud mouths in restaurants. Please do not allow them to expand their intrusion onto aircraft.
    I can see situations where someone grabs the adjacent passenger’s phone and tosses it 5 rows back hitting someone in the nose and the airline (deep pockets) being sued.

  16. Gary, I’m not sure what type of noise cancelling earphones you own, but I have yet to make my high-quality ones cancel out other people’s voices. They’re great at white noise, but their existence is not a valid reason for why cell phones should be allowed.

    Airplanes are one of the last true refuges from constant talk, and I’d like to keep it that way.

  17. “public comments are overwhelmingly against a change”

    Nuff said…

  18. No, no, no. Sure, “most” people will be considerate, but imagine being stuck next to the one loudmouth who can’t stop talking for the entire flight. Unless I spend more on headphones than I do on a plane ticket, I’d be forced to hear him or her.

    Just.. no. It’s bad enough having to hear an obnoxious conversation between two people in the row behind you, let alone someone crammed into coach right beside you.

  19. We should pilot this in first class but not permit it in coach. Within two weeks you’d be advocating for an exclusive zone (ie. first class) that was cell-phone free, or begging for a downgrade. It’s going to make the travel experience much worse.

  20. Yes, Gary, lifting the ban really would be that bad.

    We can come up with extreme scenarios like dying family members or 9/11 where phone access would be a real benefit, but those are very much the exceptions. The problem would be all the self-entitled douchebags who think their lives are important enough to justify disturbing the rest of the plane.

    Guess what? Your kid won’t be emotionally scarred for life if you don’t tuck them in. Your company won’t fold because you couldn’t see that last box of widgets from 35,000 feet (and if it does it was probably going to fold anyways).

    At the risk of getting flamed, I’m going to make an extreme classist statement – if you’re flying coach, you aren’t important enough to need constant connectivity (and that goes for people flying up front on UDU as well!)

    Oh, and I echo the comments made by others regarding headsets. My QC15’s don’t block voices. Even earplugs can sometimes accentuate conversation. If you’ve got some miracle cans that shut out the world, share the brand with us!

  21. Gary, I’m just going to throw any attempt at a rebuttal of your points to the wayside and say…NO, NO, NO. Maybe your angle on this is that, for you, sitting up in F and using your $1000 headphones is that it won’t be a big deal but…NO…

  22. @Robert Hanson said “public comments are overwhelmingly against a change” Nuff said…

    And yet when public comments on this blog take a decidedly one-sided position you continue to argue your own side quite vociferously…? 😉

  23. IMHO it’s way overdue to lift this ban. I believe allowing cell phone calls would allow for a reduction in noise, just as it has on the subways and metros of the world. It’s 2014. Considering the ambient noise, etc, almost everyone would text and not talk…Honestly I don’t think the FAA or anybody else should pay attention to old fossils who think people still TALK on phones in any but exceptional situations.

  24. No, no, no. If it ain’t broke, don’t try fixing it. Leave planes as the last bastion of phone-free space, where we can ALL suffer in silence. Relative silence, I mean.

  25. This is not a topic that is worthy of government legislation. There are airlines that allow this today and there are not widespread passenger boycotts against them. But if there were, then the airlines could reconsider their policies. Not an issue for lawmakers to spend time on in my opinion.

  26. Now, I will say that Chris is onto something. Gary, if the nuance of your post is that you just want the government out of this and then individual carriers can set policies as they see fit, then I understand this position given what you do for a living.

    So if you are just arguing that the market should decide, then I understand (but don’t necessarily agree with) the argument. Though your argument seems to mostly be that cell phones wouldn’t bother anyone – which I don’t agree with.

    I tell you this much – if one airline was the only to not allow cell phone use, that airline would NOT need an FF program to attract loyal customers!

  27. There are too many people in close proximity for this to work without arguments breaking out. If their was an area at the back of the plane where calls could be taken then maybe, but that would get under the feet of the FAs. Overall this is a bad idea all round. Noise canceling ear phones – silly idea.

  28. @Levy Flight “There are too many people in close proximity for this to work without arguments breaking out.” Except that it does work without arguments, on plenty of flights every single day, on several non-U.S. airlines. Are US passengers more hot headed and violence-prone than Middle Eastern passengers?

  29. Yes, Gary, I think American passengers are more hot-headed and violence-prone than even the Middle East!

    I do agree with @peachfront though. I have no problem with people texting on their phones. Perhaps that could be a compromise – no voice calls?

  30. “And yet when public comments on this blog take a decidedly one-sided position you continue to argue your own side quite vociferously…?”

    Yes, sometimes I do, especially where ignorance or bias comes into play. In this case, the overwhelming consensus is based on a near universal personal experience of being severely annoyed by clueless idiots blaring away endlessly at high volume.

    You pointed out the already high noise level on planes. That will cause folks who already talk too loudly to talk even louder than they usually do. And being bored and stuck on the plane will cause them to talk way longer than they otherwise would. Making an already unpleasant situation utterly miserable.

    Allowing texting would be fine, no one is going to be that disturbed by people typing away for hours. 🙂

  31. @Gary,

    I think the whole “fights will happen” is a strawman. No, they won’t happen, just a lot more people will be very annoyed. Try arguing that angle “All is good, no one is fighting, just high blood pressure all around.”

    And as several people pointed out, your reference to noise canceling headphones is way off base. Or you need to get to a hearing doctor ASAP. See if you can get some miles out of that.

  32. Cellphone use in a crowded space is rude and annoying. Don’t expect anyone else to be considerate of others. The traveling public is incapable of exercising good manners anywhere.

  33. @FlyingBear I haven’t suggested flights will happen so ignore them, quite the contrary, my point is that there are airlines around the world now offering inflight cell phone use and fights do *not* happen.

  34. I hope that the Government allows it, and that at least some airlines ban it.

    If there is no safety issue with it than a Government ban is an illegal infringement on free speech. However, as companies are not required to follow the Constitution, I would hope they would go where the market dictates, and hope that would be towards silence.

  35. To be clear as well, I’m not suggesting that noise cancelling headsets shut out all sound. I’ve flown on plenty of flights with screaming children and know that doesn’t work! But we put on those headsets anyway, and it mitigates some sound, and I’m suggesting in much the same way that terrible consequences do not ensue.

    I also observe in the post that some airlines have already said they won’t allow it. I think that’s great. If you hate inflight calls you’ll favor those airlines. If you choose the ones that allow inflight calls because those carriers have more convenient schedules or because you like their miles better, you’re revealing a preference — that the inflight calls weren’t as big a deal as a convenient schedule or valuable miles after all.

    The government doesn’t regulate airline schedules any longer, and DOT doesn’t touch frequent flyer programs.

    I’m just wondering how minor annoyances — that people are already dealing with quite well, day to day, on many airlines around the world — becomes an issue where airlines aren’t allowed to set their own policies to their own advantage vis-a-vis their customers?

  36. @Gary

    “my point is that there are airlines around the world now offering inflight cell phone use and fights do *not* happen.”

    That’s the straw-man I was talking about, you just repeated it again.

  37. I would only favor cell phone calls on planes if I would be allowed to garrote the offender with the cord of their cell phone charger. And I am only half-kidding.

  38. As much as I like my Bose headset, it DOESN’T tune out the guy next to me singing along to his favorite iPod playlist or the kid screaming – just dampers the noise somewhat.

    “Children scream (no regulations address that!)” – Their certainly should be.

    “And Seatmates talk loudly to each other. Are cell phones actually worse than this?” – Absolutely. If there is one thing that’s going to make everyone’s flight experience worse, it’s the diversions because someone got fed up with an idiot on a phone and punched them in the face.

    “…planes had airfones for years without diaster.” – Yes, so did US airlines and because they were cost prohibitive, no one used them.

    “And foreign airlines have allowed inflight cell phone use for years without fights breaking out.” – Because who wants to go to jail in Turkey, Russia or Venezuela?

    “Inflight cell phone use could even be good” – No, it can’t…Ever.

    “I might even find inflight cell phone use entertaining…” – You might find it fascinating listing to a moron babel on incessantly, but I’m there to work, eat and sleep, I don’t care if Justin Beeber was sucked into the left engine or who’s son just won American Idol.

    I might agree to Cellphone use in the air under one condition – that Taser use is also permitted.

  39. If you want silence on a flight, book a charter flight on your own dime. If you are flying on your employer’s dime, then quit being a curmudgeon and deal with the workers seated next to you. They are trying to keep their job, just like you. If you are so special that you deserve complete silence, then seriously charter your own flight. Otherwise, endure the trough like the rest of us pigs. The last I heard, Americans are free to speak. Those of you who seek to stifle others are a little full of yourselves.

  40. Notice how not a single argument against the removal of the ban involves safety. The opponents reason about how unappealing/annoying/bad for business it will be, but the FCC’s role isn’t to determine what consumers want. If there’s no safety issue (clearly there isn’t, else there’d likely be at least one incident caused by the many phones that remain on despite the ban), then the FCC should get out of the way and let the market decide.

  41. Noise canceling headphones don’t silence someone speaking or talking loudly. The cups might limit some of the sound, but the yacking and yelling that many would do on a call – in flight would quickly prove quite annoying.

  42. Texting and/or email are sufficient. Nobody flying commercial is going to cause a disaster if their offline for up to half a day. Plan for and deal with being unreachable. If cell phones would work I expect there’d be WiFi so use email, iMessage, WhatsApp, etc. instead. I already want to punch every flight attendant in the face when they are chatting all through the “night” in the back of coach. Don’t throw more obnoxious a-holes into the mix.

  43. their -> they’re. Sorry, no edit feature. Though more annoyingly, *cough* *cough*, no timestamps in the comments either!

  44. Posted on my Facebook page with a link to your article: I’m with the masses on this one! And the author is wrong — noise canceling headphones cancel white noise (the jet engines and air conditioning) and let the intermittent stuff (babies, laughter, clinking bottles, and — you got it — TALK) come through *MORE* clearly. And the people talking are actually talking louder because they don’t have headphones on!!! DUH!

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