The cellphone debate

Technology brought us together in 2013, but in an unexpected way: It brought about the Great In-flight Phone Debate, an apparently one-sided discussion in which we all finally agreed on something. Nobody seems to want to listen to cellphone chatter on commercial airline flights.

As the Federal Communications Commission began the process of ending its ban on technical grounds, it pointed out that it will be up to the airlines to decide whether to offer passengers the option of using their wireless phones for text, email, Web browsing and/or voice calls.

But will it?

The mere prospect has led to such an extraordinary outpouring of angst and outrage that politicians are taking notice. Bills have been introduced in Congress to ban cellphone calls in flight, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asserted that his department already has -- and will try to use -- the legal authority to settle the question.

This demonstration of government responsiveness is interesting, but is this pre-emptive intervention really necessary?

As we report in the news pages today, a growing number of international airlines -- including some with reputations for excellent service -- are already using the technology, and their passengers are not rebelling, starting fistfights or jumping out of windows.

Although U.S. consumer confidence in airlines is understandably in, shall we say, a recovery mode, the international experience to date has shown that, in the words of Kevin Rogers, the CEO of wireless provider AeroMobile, the airlines are "quite capable" of managing this. He pointedly concluded, "You don't need to regulate it."

We hope Congress and the Department of Transportation (DOT) get the message. Although the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the industry's customer relations are still heavily encumbered by federal rules. We don't think the government should add to that burden without a compelling demonstration of need.

There is also the risk that pre-emptive congressional or DOT action at this stage could create jurisdictional battles that don't need to be fought. Will any U.S. rule stop at the water's edge? Will it apply to foreign airlines in U.S. airspace or on their inbound flights to the U.S., as other DOT rules now do? How will foreign governments react?

If common sense and market forces can settle or avoid any of these questions, the government should stay in standby mode. We will surely need it if there's a market failure, but are we really so sure the market will fail?
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