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. In many ways the promiscuous use of cell phones has made me dislike them. Add to that the loud mouth behavior of many people with total disregard for people around them, and I will fully support a total ban on them mid-flights.

  2. Food for thought. By no means do we want to resurrect the Bush jr days and ultra noid status, but I was just thinking.

    With today’s handsets and the ability to geolocate one, especially with people who are easily duped.. Wouldn’t unlimited cell phone use allow an outside party ( perhaps one with soviet or other missiles) to basically by using a piece of consumer electronics, get a fixed location on any passenger aircraft? Oh wait the data is already online with flight paths etc, just exploring the implications of ‘location services’ . They are already using it to tailor marketing.

  3. No phones on the airplanes. Not because it is dangerous but becasue it is annoying to your neighbors. It is already bad enough pre-flight or in the lounges. One bad apple…

    They do it differently abroad argument is not working for me. Why? Abroad slow cars stay or immediately after passing get on the right line. Here it does not happen, unless the driver is European 😉

  4. Gary is out to lunch on this one. Amtrak has quiet cars precisely because people talking on phones is annoying.

    As for fights not breaking out on cell phone allowed flights, is that really the test? Everyone is having a nice flight because there is no evidence of fights? Seems like a weak test. Further, how do you know there aren’t fights? How many cell-allowed flights have you taken in the last year? How many of those have been in coach?

    The most important reason why cell phones should be banned is that you can’t escape the annoyance. On the ground it is easy; in the air in an aluminum tube, not so much.

  5. I think you’re alone on this one, Gary. The fact that Amtrak allows it is fairly irrelevant — as you said, there are quiet cars on Amtrak but there won’t be here. The fact that planes are loud means that people on their phones will talk louder.

    I respect that this probably shouldn’t be the government’s purview, but I have absolutely no interest in having people use cellphones on planes, and it sounds like the rest of the country feels likewise

  6. Allow texting, yes, but phone calls should be banned precisely for James K’s point. Telephone talkers will have to yell into their phones for the others to hear.

    You are definitely alone here.

  7. As I say, I don’t like them. But they aren’t a safety issue, and their use around the world inflight without problems suggests they aren’t as awful as people fear.

    Not everything that’s annoying ought to be illegal, and the value gained for people making business calls or calls to loved ones too should count for something.

    Some airlines won’t permit it. Others might try quiet sections (albeit perhaps for an additional fee!).

    I just don’t think it ought to be illegal. Because, freedom.

  8. Nope – I’m with Gary on this one. We can already place calls over Skype and other VOIP services via in-flight wifi. As far as I’m concerned, this is a non-issue and certainly not one the federal government should bother with.

    Obnoxious people will be obnoxious regardless of whether they can use cell phones in flight or not. Courteous people will remain courteous. After the initial swarm of “I’m calling you from an airplane!” calls subsides, we’ll be back to business as usual.

  9. Yeah giving people too much freedom only means some idiot will abuse it, I have used inflight phones and there is no reason you need anything else, it is expensive so people keep conversations short.

    Some idiot will undoubtedly be talking loudly and screaming can you hear me can you hear me…for hours if given the opportunity. I say no voice calls on cell phones, or have a time limit for each call that disconnects auto, 5mins per person, per flight max.

  10. Although I do not want to see cell phones on airplanes, you are completely right that this is in no way a safety issue. Airlines should have the right to decide their own policies on cell phone usage. I think the market generally does not want to see cell phones on planes, and as such I find it unlikely that the legacy carriers would allow it. That being said, it is quite likely that some discount carriers would use it to differentiate themselves and/or add an additional source of revenue. More options for consumers is a good thing, and DOT has not business regulating convenience or annoyance issues.

  11. Keep government out of this issue. The airlines can decide for themselves if they should allow cell phone use.

  12. Set aside a section at the rear of regular coach for cell phone users. Charge a premium to sit there. No cell phone use anywhere else on the aircraft.

  13. It’s more lawless ObamaWorld’s “War on Flyers”. That’s all that it is.

    No water, no phone, no laptop, no toilet paper.

  14. Have we seen anything out of UA, DL, and USdbaAA in the recent past that indicates that they actually care about what their customers want? This is not a “free market” that I care to trust. Bring on the ban!

    Nudity on planes is not a safety issue either. ‘Merica! Freedom! Bring it onnnnnnnn!!!!

  15. I barely use my cell phone on the ground, but I’m all for allowing calls on airplanes. That’s actually one place I would use them regularly. Insane to try and justify banning them for fatuous “safety” reasons.

  16. Thank you, Gary. Excellent argument. The ban is just stupid. And most people won’t talk inflight, because they’ll realize other people will hear their conversation. Instead they’ll text which will bother no one and which will keep them quietly entertained. I’d rather the lonely heart in the seat next to me drunk text his girlfriend than bore me with the story of his life…

    What the heck is wrong with the FCC? I thought they had a real job.

  17. Great idea IMO. As someone that flies almost every week for work, the last thing I want at 7:30am is every fellow business traveler around me flapping their gums pretending like they are saving lives.

  18. If you cannot be on a plane for a maximum of 15 hours without talking on the phone, stay home!!!! I am all for banning the use of cell phone on planes. Very annoying to be next to someone talking on the phone. Again, not happy with the idea, do not board the plane.

  19. Government, butt out… NO BAN! The government has no business trying to tell people who they can or cannot talk to, and when. And what on God’s green earth makes some of you think YOU should police others in that way?

    If you’re so uppity that you want to control everyone around you, and have such a huge ego & low tolerance that you can’t be around anyone else’s conversations, then charter your own flight.

    Speech is a civil liberty. Mind your own business, your own conversations, and quit policing when others can talk. Be grateful nobody is bombing your house and shooting your kids like what goes on in other countries.

  20. Gary — the flaw in your argument is that you don’t account for the “ugly American.” People “elsewhere in the world” have a lot of rights that we don’t have anymore, and it’s because they are more likely to defer their needs for the good of the group. That’s how people are brought up in other countries. In this country, all anyone cares about is their own needs. This is why we’re seeing more people bring their dogs on flights with phony “doctor’s notes.” No one cares that their seatmate might have a dog allergy — I want my dog with me on my flight, so I’m bringing him.

    I think the blind spot in your reasoning is that you rarely fly coach. I was on a flight in coach where a guy was on the phone as the plane was turning onto the runway and picking up speed to take off. And this was maybe a year or two after 9/11, so people were on edge, but he didn’t care. This is the kind of numbskullery you encounter in coach, and that’s why this ban is needed.

  21. Why don’t we ban all talking on planes because it is annoying? Also, I’d like to ban people from climbing over me to use the bathroom. Also, we should ban people who wear graphic tees or bright colors. That is just so annoying to look at. Also, people I personally am not attracted to should not be allow to fly on the same plane as me. So annoying when people aren’t good looking.

    I’m with Gary, accept to the extent that he thinks the market can solve this. In theory, it might, but I think in reality, people are still choosing flights based on stops and fares, and there’s just not enough competition for market forces to “work.” Rather than, “oh, maybe I will fly Delta because they don’t allow cell phones.” Consumers will be saying, “Guess I have to fly Delta again. No texting for me.”

  22. It honestly makes me really sad & concerned to see so many people begging to give up all our freedoms, and submit fully to government.

  23. I am generally very pro regulation, but I don’t think DOT should bann cell phone use on planes:

    I agree with Gary, why did we not bann the use of seatback phones? Also I agree with Gary this is one of those times when the free market system may work i.e. Delta not offering the service & possibly other airlines offering the service. For those who support the bann, why do you think it has worked in Europe to allow cell phone use?

    I remember I chose Verizon Wireless back in the day because they offered a $.10 a minute plan for the in seat phones, and they also had coverage in the DC metro system. This $.10 plan was not very well known but it worked well.

    I wonder who is pressuring DOT to do this?

    Also why is talking on a cell phone different than talking to your neighbor???!!! Maybe we should bann all talking, and actually coming from a Finn, that is something we might be able to support. 🙂

    Also this could be difficult to enforce, just as it was difficult to enforce the no cell phone use under 10,000 feet.

  24. @Lindy: People gave up their freedom when they voted. Now they complain about what they chose. The “Land of the Free” is gone.

  25. Some of your reasoning is. Pretty ridiculous: “aircraft are noisy/babies cry” – right, so because there’s already noise on a plane you think it’s ok to introduce more?
    “Planes had seat back phones for years” – yes , and like you said a few sentences later, they are very very expensive so there’s a built in deterrent to people yaking away endlessly. With wifi at under $20 for an 11hr TATL flight do you really think cell phone calls will be expensive enough to deter people from taking and talking and taking some more? No way should we ever allow cel phone usage on planes.

  26. I’d vote no on cell phones, just as I would vote no for screaming babies sitting next to me if I could.

  27. @jay “Yeah giving people too much freedom only means some idiot will abuse it, ”

    Gary – “Speechless.”

    Ah so Gary you have a libertarian worldview that you feel trumps the well being of your fellow passengers. None of your arguments held water but you put forward a weak arguments rather than just saying you like being told what to do by government. Nonsensical rationalization.

  28. It is both amusing and pathetic that people are so quick to allow the government to overstep its authority simply because they think people on cell phones might be annoying to them. It is clear that this is in no way a safety issue. The government is simply pandering to popular sentiment and scoring some populist points by siding with the majority of people who don’t like the idea of cell phones on flights.

    Any person who is even moderately rational and honest with him or herself must admit that this is in no way a safety issue. So, even if you don’t like the idea of cell phones, why should you celebrate the government ruling on something under the guise of safety concerns if there really aren’t any safety issues?

    If the government (DOT, in this case), were really concerned about safety, and passenger behavior that can threaten the safety of those on board, wouldn’t it make more sense to forbid the consumption of alcohol on planes? Inebriated passengers are frequently cited in the news as causing problems for crews and other passengers alike. I’m actually not in support of forbidding alcohol but just wanted to point out that this is more of a problem (and has empirically proven to be) than all of the hypothetical cell phone safety/annoyance issues people are getting so excited about.

    If I can trust myself and others to enjoy the benefits of a nice beer or gin & tonic on a flight (in moderation) after a challenging business trip, then why shouldn’t I let one (potentially) loud cell phone user ruin it for the rest of us. I’m sure that a flight attendant is capably of asking someone to speak more quietly just like he or she can ask any other loud passenger to be more considerate.

    I don’t particularly enjoy the conversations I hear on flights between people around me on flights. Sometimes the conversation is too loud, and sometimes the voices are just annoying. Sometimes the speakers have shrill voices, or I may hear children screeching. By the same silly logic employed by most people when it comes to a government ban on cell phones, perhaps we should just ban conversation on planes all together. Indeed, what makes a person’s conversation to another person via a device (cell phone in this case), any less justifiable than a conversation he or she may be having with another person on the plane?

  29. Gary I’ve called you out countless times for being wrong but you are 100% right on this one. This supersedes DOT’s regulatory authority and is complete pandering.

    What I would have given to have one last call with my mother before she went into emergency surgery. I was flying up to visit her but by the time I got there it was just a wake.

  30. I realize that people do not want others talking on their cell phones.

    What I’m hoping that some people can do is separate out personal preferences (which I share) from what the government ought to take action on.

    Personally I would prefer that the government not act at all on this, because it isn’t the proper role to legislate one group’s preference onto othres.

    But it isn’t at all necessary to agree with me on that to agree that the DOT should not act here.

    All you have to believe is that some limits on government power, the idea of the rule of law, matters more than stopping some folks from yammering.

    The only way the DOT can pretend it has the authority to do this is to claim it is related to safety. Which it is not, in any way. In other words, the DOT has no legal authority to do it. So if you favor DOT action, you favor administrative agencies doing whatever they wish regardless of what the statutes say underlying their authority.

    Seems like a whole lot to give up just to get quiet on the plane. But of course this won’t give you quiet on the plane. Because planes aren’t quiet now. And airlines that allow cell phone use, in countries that allow it, are not noisier than US airlines.

  31. @Jon “The government is simply pandering to popular sentiment and scoring some populist points by siding with the majority of people who don’t like the idea of cell phones on flights.” – Absolutely! We can’t have a government that actually does something that most people want, that would be terrible!. Far better have them allow the minority have their way….what could go wrong with that?

  32. Cell phone use on a plane WILL be a safety issue – some loud moron will be yapping away, someone will have enough of it and punch them in face and or stomach.

    VOIP is not allowed via “inflight wifi” in the US either.

    Can I use Gogo to place a call with my cellular or VoIP phone?

    Using cellular network services (voice or data) during the flight is not currently allowed. VoIP services are not permitted as well.

    Skype users can utilize the Instant messaging functionality, but will not be able to make a call.

    I’m happy to have DOT allow it, as long as I can bring a taser.

  33. I can’t believe there are 41 comment and no comments on the Constitution. Given that it’s been proven to be safe, I can’t possibly see how this wouldn’t be an infringement on an individual’s freedom of speech.

    I’m not saying that it’s a good idea or that I want it. But the US constitution isn’t designed to allow such leeway (see: Gun control); with the exception of public safety issues, the Government can not ban speech.

  34. @Ryan,

    I’m totally with you on the many government overreach actions – But I can’t see how they are banning speech here.

    You can say whatever you want on a plane (except for maybe yelling “Hi” to your friend Jack seated in economy). Just like punching someone in the face, it may be construed as a “Safety Issue”, but certainly not banning of speech.

    On the other hand, why wouldn’t US DOT “rules” cease once you leave US airspace?

  35. Freedom of speech is not absolute. Too many people think it is. When you enter a commercial establishment voluntarily (be it a store restaurant or aircraft) you have agreed to live by their rules. If you don’t think so, try yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre.

  36. Let the airlines decide! Then you, the consumer, has a choice.

    This airline allows cellphone use, so you fly them when you would like to be or need to be on the phone while in the air.

    That airline does not allow it, so you choose to fly with them when you have that dreaded red eye and need some rest.

    What a great country we live in! Or, maybe not if the DOT decides to regulate something it shouldn’t be regulating. Hopefully they do the right thing and keep out of it.

  37. @Braintreeboy
    Couldn’t agree more and I hope that airlines ban it or offer quiet zones; but that is very different from the DoT/Government banning it. Also, the commercial establishment rule isn’t why shouting fire isn’t allow, that’s a public safety issue and is completely different.

    Your reasoning would allow the Government to ban any method of communication as long as it didn’t touch your ability to talk someone physically near you. Thankfully, that’s not how it works. All speech, whether in person, by phone, text, email or blog post is protected, with very limited exceptions.

    By banning phone calls the Government would be impeding your ability to communicate with people not on-board the plane.

  38. cell phones can get a signal at 30K+ feet from inside a metal vehicle ?

    I have a problem getting a few bars strength from the 22nd floor of my condo in bkk.

  39. Who cares about the Constitution? I just don’t want to be annoyed on planes! The Constitution is not more important than my slightly increased risk of personal discomfort!

    Can anyone spot the problem here?


    Would it be acceptable for the Food & Drug Administration to pass a rule requiring the confiscation of all personal firearms?

    Both scenarios are clearly Unconstitution and beyond both agency’s delegated power.

  40. “Quiet sections on planes”.

    Gary-Stick to the ‘Don’t tread on me’ line of reasoning. At least that’s an opinion rather than an absurdity.

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