An Inflight Cell Phone Ban Is On Its Way, and That’s Not a Good Thing

The Department of Transportation’s General Counsel says they plan to introduce formal rules by the end of the year which would ban inflight cell phone calls. (HT: Alan H.)

This is precipitated by the FCC’s merely talking about the prospect of lifting its rules since it no longer believes there is any technical justification for them. And that the idea of inflight calls are highly unpopular.

Is Inflight Cell Phone Use Even Bad?

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.

But passengers elsewhere in the world use phones on planes and terrible things don’t happen In fact, few passengers actually make calls and those that do keep them short. Fights don’t break out.

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.

And 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 now that it’s cheap it’s bad.

Moreover, planes aren’t quiet now. Engines make noise. Babies cry. And 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. Cell phone calls aren’t worse than that, and I’d often prefer my seatmate talk into their phone than talk to me.

Could it Even Be GOOD?

Calls might even be important, or meaningful.

Why shouldn’t the deep connection to a child, tucking them in at night for a traveler on the road a lot who doesn’t see their kid as often as they’d want weigh against the hypothetical annoyance of other passengers?

Or we could actually accomplish things. Greater productivity during dead time is one of the few pieces of ‘low hanging fruit’ left to goose the economy.

Should the Government Actually Ban Calls?

This isn’t a safety issue, it’s all about pandering to the unpopularity of something that we haven’t even experienced yet. Even if you don’t personally want people using phones, does that mean the government should ban their use?

Airlines don’t think the Department of Transportation has the legal authority for the ban. Here’s how the DOT sees it:

The Transportation Department has said it would pursue any ban of in-flight calls on consumer-protection grounds, under sections of transportation law that give it the authority to ensure airlines provide “safe and adequate” service and to protect fliers from “unfair and deceptive practices” by airlines. The department successfully used these laws to make a rule that fines airlines for keeping fliers on an airplane parked on a tarmac for several hours.

If we accept a reading of safety that includes whether people can use phones, then that fairly well eliminates any constraints on DOT authority. Not only is there no documented safety risk, inflight cell phone use happens every day around the world without incident, and the cabin crew retains the ability to turn off and on the systems which would permit inflight use of cell phones.

Instead of banning cell phone use on the tenuous justification of safety (DOT has no authority under the rubric “because people don’t like it”), shouldn’t they instead be investigating what the safest way to allow this is?

Let the Airlines Compete for Our Buisness

For those who think airline consolidation has been bad for consumers, that there isn’t really competition anymore, shouldn’t airlines be allowed to compete for our business?

Delta announced more than six months ago that if inflight cell phone use became legal, that they wouldn’t allow it. If enough consumers hate cell phones, there would be a meaningful shift over to Delta.

Why not let consumers choose what’s important to them, without forbidding other passengers from seeking out what they value most?

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. What is your basis for claiming it is not a safety risk? I believe you meant to say “no documented safety event” since the fact is there is a risk, even if is remote. Cell phones operate in an RF band close to that of some of the communication equipment on commercial aircraft. While one or two phones might not pose a risk, an entire aircraft full of people on the phone could provide enough noise or in-band power to interfere with the signal or saturate the aircraft’s receiver . Sure, it’s unlikely every passenger will get on the phone at the same time, but I believe more research is necessary, along with some establishments of standards for each aircraft, before we let phone use become commonplace with no restrictions. We sure can’t rely on the airline industry for self-regulating its safety.

    What is the current in-flight use of cell phones you are referring to? If you’re talking about an aircraft that basically has its own cell antenna and goes over satellite, that may mitigate some of the risks.

    Skype and its ilk over in-flight wifi is different–the RF band of both the local wifi signal and that of the communications with the satellite are much higher frequency. In addition, the satellite signal supporting wifi is sent with a much higher directivity, meaning there is less chance for interference.

  2. Until you have endured it, you have no true way of understanding how big of a problem it will be. I was on a business class flight of 5+ hours and the guy behind me decided to take a business call THE ENTIRE FLIGHT. And the cabin was dimmed for sleeping. But not this guy. He yammered on and at loud volumes BECAUSE of the engine noise. I had my ear plugs in and I STILL couldn’t ignore him. A passenger complained to the stewardess who gently asked him to end it and he said “5 minutes more” which turned into the remainder of the flight. You can say all you want about it being just an annoyance, or that people won’t actually do it, that they won’t want others to know their conversation. I have a news flash: people are selfish. They WILL use their cell phones. And it will drive people crazy. And the airlines won’t care because they’re busy charging people $5 for carry-on baggage. WE NEED THIS BAN OR ELSE AIR TRAVEL WILL BE EVEN MORE MISERABLE THAN IT ALREADY IS!

  3. If you plop down next to me in FC and start chatty kathy don’t be shocked when I grab your cell and start a beatdown……..I mean I don’t want to do that to you homey but you give me no choice in this sit-e-a-shun……….stand down Gary…..stand down…….

  4. Maybe business travelers could be the worst offenders? I wear those Bose noise cancelling headphones which cut out the engine noise but you can still hear people clearly (which I want so I can hear the stewardess etc), so those wouldn’t help.
    Hmmm I think calls should be prohibited but texts allowed

  5. Re: safety: I’m not an RF (radio frequency) engineer and cannot evaluate avionics shielding. However, cell phones’ RF output power is in direct relation to the strength of the RF signal received by the phone.

    Assuming that an aircraft is equipped with cellular transmitters and appropriately placed directional antennas, the radiated power from the omnidirectional antennas on cell phones could be kept relatively low, thus reducing the likelihood that interference with the avionics would happen.

    The FCC is well qualified to make these measurements and evaluations. I’m not, and I expect that virtually everyone weighing in on either side of this argument knows anything of technical value.


    Land phones (wired and wireless) have “side tone” — some sound from the microphone is reproduced by the earpiece. The cellular phones of which I’m aware do not have this feature.

    Side tone allows people to modulate their voice level independent of the background noise level. Without side tone, people speak more loudly so they can hear themselves above the ambient noise.

    If people use cell phones in-flight, expect some people to bellow at top volume because they’ll be unaware of how loudly they are talking.

    If an airline allowed cell phones, Skype, or other two-way voice communication in-flight, I’d avoid that airline.

  6. I would not fly on an airline that permitted cell phone use. I really can’t stand listening to another person’s conversation. On a flight, when people are bored, they will drone on and on just to pass the time. Nothing could be worse.

  7. For avoidance of doubt I do not have any financial relationship with the cell phone industry, other than as a customer (I pay my cell phone bill each month)

  8. Just make it $10/min like the old seatback phone. Very few people will be on the phone.

  9. > Why not let consumers choose what’s important to them, without forbidding other people from seeking out what they value most?

    The majority of consumers want a smoke-free cabin without the noise associated with people on cellphones. This fact is indisputable as survey after survey shows it.

    In a democracy banning what the majority feels like are public nuisances (smoking and cellphone usage in this case) is the only correct policy, and the minority to whom smoking or using a cellphone is important still have the freedom of doing so in private (e.g. when hiring thir own plane as opposed to taking a common carrier, a form of public transport). In the US the process is broken (Congress does not represent the people), but the outcome would be the correct one.

  10. @Free markets wrote “In a democracy banning what the majority feels like are public nuisances (smoking and cellphone usage in this case) is the only correct policy”

    Or if the majority wants to ban what it feels is a public nuisance… like same sex marriage, public dancing, or women failing to hide their faces… then that’s the only correct policy because, well, majority?

    Perhaps more directly relevant, since the issue here is majority use of government force to dictate policies of private businesses, if the majority wants to require that African Americans not be permitted to sit at the same lunch counter as Whites, because sitting with someone of a different skin color would be a nuisance?

  11. An extremely few # are concerned about a government imposing law/regulation outside of its bounds. All people really care about is whether they agree with the new law or not. As long as they think they’ll benefit, then fine, Govt, impose away, & don’t stop there, take as many liberties as you can (for our own best interests, which we can’t discern ourselves). We may eventually resent the overbearance but until then, you are the best gubberment in the world, yes you are, googoo gaga. Overstep any way you like. Our freedoms our ours to part with and we luv u, Gubberment. We can’t live wiffout u.

  12. If you have wifi on planes, you’ll have cell phone usage- I had no problem calling on Skype over Gogo, after turning on my VPN. So I’m not sure what the point of a “ban” on cell phones would be- filtering out the less technically literate?

    It’s similar to the current regulations on electronic device usage during take off- I was amused to see the guy with the 10″ netbook dutifully putting away his laptop for takeoff, but the other guy with the 10″ Surface Pro just folded the keyboard away and kept working on the touch screen! How is one safer than the other?

  13. @Free Markets – Let’s be clear about what’s happening in this case: the FAA, a government agency (run by the executive, the president, and created by Congress with limited authority to carry out principles Congress established) is making a rule that is outside the boundaries established by Congress, and a rule that is coincidentally firmly at odds with the 1st amendment. Congress isn’t creating a law here because of the will of the majority. If Congress passed a law banning cell use on planes, I wouldn’t support it, but the process would be better than this clear agency overstep. I still don’t see how Congress could get around a 1st amendment challenge though because they would have to meet immediate scrutiny under time, place, and manner restrictions. My bet is that the real difficulty would be showing a compelling government interest in curtailing cell phone use. I am adamantly opposed to the PROCESS that the government is using to impose this rule because it is clearly overstepping its delegated authority AND imposing an unconstitutional rule. Also, for those of you who didn’t go to law school, I’d recommend on reading more about administrative law.

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