DOT Committee Recommends Cell Phone Use Be Allowed Onboard

The Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection voted to recommend that airlines be permitted to choose whether or not cell phones are allowed onboard their planes.

Two years ago the FCC announced that it was considering lifting the ban on inflight cell phone use. The Department of Transportation responded by saying that if the FCC acted to allow cell phones, they’d regulate against it (under a seriously dubious reading of their statuatory authority to ensure “safe and adequate” and protect consumers from “unfair and deceptive practices” by airlines).

But now the DOT’s own advisory committee says that airlines ought to be able to make their own rules.

Does this mean you’re going to have to listen to your bloviating seatmate talking about the big deal they’re trying to close? or talking to their paramour?

And are fights going to break out on all your flights?

Both DOT and FCC have received comment on the issue, almost all against, and this isn’t on the verge of happening. It’s just one small step that could ultimately be viewed as having started momentum if inflight cell phone use comes to pass.

Lots of consumers think that it would be really annoying if their seat opponent got on their phone. I don’t like talking on the phone when I’m on the ground, so inflight cell phone use doesn’t excite me either. But I also don’t see the harm, or at least I see as much potential upside as downside when looking at how this issue is handled throughout the rest of the world.

Five Things to Consider Before Letting Your Head Explode Over the Possibility of Inflight Cell Phone Use:

  1. Cell phone use is allowed throughout much of the world, uptake is limited, and calls are short. Fights do not break out.

  2. Amtrak allows cell phones in a confined space, too, and it’s not awful (though conversations around us can sometimes be amusing, and sometimes eye roll-inducing). They also have quiet cars.

  3. Planes had seatback phones for years. They weren’t often used because they were expensive. So presumably the fear in letting passengers use their cell phones is that it was ok when it wasn’t practical to use, but not when it’s cheap. It’s unclear that it would actually be cheap…

  4. Planes aren’t peaceful spaces to begin with. Engines make noise. Babies cry. Passengers talk to each other now. I can’t tell you how many times folks have told me their life story… sometimes after they’ve thrown back one too many. Even when I’m wearing noise cancelling headphones. Cell phone calls aren’t worse than that, and I’d often prefer my seatmate talk into their phone than talk to me.

  5. Calls can be important. Just a few months ago this woman might have been able to stop a suicide. There are painful tragedies, and special moments repeating themselves across the country every day. How many business travelers would love to say good night to a young child they rarely see during the week? What would that extra connectedness to a parent mean to that child? Not every call is important, but some are. To the extent this isn’t free you’d likely see the relative proportion shift towards important calls that are deemed worth the money. And the important calls have to count for something.

Many airlines wouldn’t allow calls. Delta is on record saying they won’t permit inflight cell phone use even if legal. So one more non-frequent flyer program reason that many may want to fly Delta.

There are plenty of things that we may not like but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable to others. And it doesn’t mean they should be illegal. Because, freedom.

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. “Cell phone use is allowed throughout much of the world, uptake is limited, and calls are short. Fights do not break out.”

    What is the cost? That’s the main issue: if it’s expensive, which I assume/hope it will be, who cares if they enable it? It will be rare the a*hole who feels compelled to spend $500 to scream at his minions and talk to his hoes in every area code.

    If it’s cheap, however, then we’re doomed. Because everyone will turn into a jerk and spend the entire flight talking and kicking the seat. It’s sort of the “greater internet f*ckwad theory” of air travel: cheap cell phone access would turn normal people into horrible neighbors. But if it’s expensive, then it’ll be nice and civil.

  2. Gary,

    Your points are spot on. I lived in the Middle East for years, and when Emirates introduced this capability people thought it was going to be awful. It wasn’t, and continues to expand. Back in the day of GTE Airfones, it was the rare for anybody to use these, largely due to cost.

    Even if the cost is reasonable, I doubt we will see a lot of airborne conversations. While it’s annoying to hear someone near you talking, it’s also annoying to many people to have their conversations knowingly overheard.

    This is a lot of fuss over nothing.

  3. I ride the subway every day, and it’s much more crowded than a airplane, with no ban on cellphones. However, I can only think of a couple of times when someone’s cell phone use bothered me. Much more common irritant is someone playing games on their cell phone with the volume turned up.

  4. “I can’t tell you how many times folks have told me their life story… sometimes after they’ve thrown back one too many. Even when I’m wearing noise cancelling headphones. Cell phone calls aren’t worse than that, and I’d often prefer my seatmate talk into their phone than talk to me.”

    Holy shit, Gary. Way to be a citizen.

  5. Wrong. For some reason unbeknownst to me people have a tendency to shout into their cell phones. This is much worse than people having conversation in a normal tone of voice. Sure there is the drunk couple shouting and cackling but they will probably fall asleep or get bored of one another and watch a movie. Imagine a single drunk shouting into his phone: run out of things to talk about with your girlfriend? Call your brother. And then move down the contacts list for the duration of this flight. You are right this happens on Amtrak all the time and its terrible. It makes me choose between being inconvenienced by the woman shouting in her cell the whole time or the quiet car where I cannot say a word to my companion or make a 30 second phone call without looking like the bad guy.

  6. Have to agree with Chris and George. We should also remember that engine roar will silence most cell phone conversations. I once took a FaceTime Audio call while I leaned against the window. I hung up and asked the passenger in the aisle whether she heard my call. She didn’t even realize I had been talking.

  7. This could be a good opportunity for delta to gain followers. If they would come up with some type or status match program, I would jump ship. I lived in Chicago and commuted by train for over 30 years. During that time I had to listen to a lot of idiots talk undlessly about things that should have been considered private conversations. If you ever asked a commuter to please talk quietly or take their conversation out to the vestibule, you were given the evil eye. In the last few years, the Chicago transit system has realized they needed to set aside “Quiet Cars” during peak rush hour travel. I would hate to see cell phones allowed. Once allowed, you know the phone companies will come up with some type of new technology to make the cost of the calls more reasonable. Maybe we need to divide the plane into “Quiet” section. I sure would pay more to have a quiet environment! Maybe we could put the kids in the same section as the phone abusers.

  8. @Jason: Don’t you think that engine roar might only cause the person to speak louder? I say NO to phones on a plane: People are getting by just fine at present, so why “fix” what ain’t broke. Or maybe phones could be restricted only to the front of the plane, for conducting high level, important business, because we all know those of us in the cheap seats aren’t important.

  9. In China specifically, you are instructed to turn your cell phone off – no airplane mode! If the Chinese can live with this, then anyone else can as well.

  10. sorry, but nothing the DOT or airline passengers say will ever matter. the cell phone carriers who own the towers and the FCC will never allow it, because cell towers were designed for phones on the ground with limited range.

  11. Perhaps DOT should prioritize banning hand held cell phone use while driving cars. This airplane law seems relatively trivial.

  12. @ Gary — “Bloviating seatmate” — all I can think of is Donald Trump…thank God he has his own plane!

  13. I am reminded of a lady in the Hartford airport who talked very loudly into her cell phone for 45 minutes straight. Everyone in the waiting area could hear her – dropping names, mentioning $$$$$ stuff meant to impress everyone. After a while I realized that she was just talking to the phone – there was no one at the other end!

  14. Really? If they want cell phones on planes then let my partner sit next to them for one Box- LAX flight and it will change their minds. he can talk your ear off. 30-60 mins to his mom, sister 1, sister 2, friends etc. I have a Virgin mobile pay as you go 20 cent a min phone just so I DO NOT have to talk to him on the phone! Imagine him locked in a seat on a plane with his cell! !

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