In a fit of common sense, the FCC is discussing lifting its ban on in-flight calls because it possesses no evidence showing that those calls pose a safety threat. It is a rare instance of the government actually removing unwarranted and outdated regulations. The Chairman of the FCC couldn’t have said it better than he did:
I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission. Our mandate from Congress is to oversee how networks function. I am painfully aware of the emotional response this proposal has triggered. Yet, I firmly believe that if we are serious about eliminating regulations which serve no purpose, the decision is clear.
And so it is. However, just as good sense was being instated at the FCC, the Transportation Department decided that it would take it upon itself to be the Courtesy Commission. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says he has heard from numerous people (fliers, flight attendants, lawmakers, etc.) “who are all troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight—and [Foxx] is concerned about [the] possibility as well.”
So, Foxx has decided to insert the government into a place where it has no business because, he claims, it is his job to decide if allowing calls on airlines is “fair to consumers.” Here is a perfect example of a government bureaucracy overstepping its legitimate reason for existence (safety) and taking on a new mission (arbiter of values). Foxx doesn’t like the idea of people talking on cell phones and disrupting other passengers (frankly, neither do )I. However, on what basis should it be the Transportation Department’s prerogative to decide what will and what will not be allowed on board? Why shouldn’t the airlines and the market be the arbiters of what is appropriate?
If airline customers really don’t like cell phones on planes, they will let their opinions be known, either by complaining or by voting with their feet. Airlines will quickly be able to determine whether allowing customers to use cell phones is so disruptive that it drives away other customers. If it does, the airlines will fashion a remedy. Either some airlines will compete on the basis of not allowing phone conversations or, more likely, just as Amtrak does with its quite cars, the airlines will institute cell-free sections.
Once the issue of safety has been taken care of, cell phone use is an issue of convenience (or annoyance). The market is very, very good at identifying the things that customers enjoy or hate and responding to them accordingly. A Transportation Department takeover of the cell phone regulations can only lead to a monolithic solution which stifles innovation and consumer choice. The FCC is fulfilling its duties as a public agency by relinquishing unnecessary government intervention. The Transportation Department should not rush in to reestablish it.