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Busybodies in Congress Prepared to Re-Prohibit Voice Communications During Flight

After two decades with a ban on the books, the Federal Communications Commission is set to consider allowing transmitting mobile devices on aircraft. On Thursday, the FCC will vote on whether or not it will begin allowing transmitting mobile devices in flight. The European Commission recently approved 3G and 4G transmissions aboard commercial flights with some limitations and leaving the decision to permit voice communications up to individual airlines. Recent research has found that there is little risk of aircraft instrument interference from passengers' portable electronic devices, which led the Federal Aviation Administration to recently end its prohibition on use of non-transmitting devices below 10,000 feet.

Airlines can still decide individually if portable electronic devices are allowed during all flight phases, but most if not all will soon permit their customers to use their devices in airplane mode gate to gate. The airlines would have the same discretion to permit or prohibit transmitting mobile devices if the FCC decides to reform its current policy. Some airlines may wish to allow their customers to engage in voice communications during flight, others may not.

But some in Congress wish to outlaw this choice. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is set to introduce a bill that would "prohibit an individual on an aircraft from engaging in voice communications using a mobile communications device during a flight of that aircraft in scheduled passenger interstate or intra-state air transportation."

“For passengers, being able to use their phones and tablets to get online or send text messages is a useful in-flight option. But if passengers are going to be forced to listen to the gossip in the aisle seat, it’s going to make for a very long flight,” Shuster said in a statement. “For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.”

Another Republican, Lamar Alexander, Tenn., is considering whether or not to introduce a similar bill in the Senate. "Stop and think about what we hear now in airport lobbies from those who wander around shouting personal details into a microphone: babbling about last night’s love life, bathroom plans, next week’s schedule, orders to an assistant, arguments with spouses," Alexander said in a November statement. "Imagine this noise while you travel, restrained by your seatbelt, unable to escape."

According to the Red Team/Blue Team media narrative, the Republicans are supposedly skeptical of regulation while the Democrats enthusiastically embrace it. Yet here we have a proposed arbitrary political intervention coming from these supposed skeptics on Team Red -- who have charted out a more pro-regulatory course than European socialists.

It is emblematic of the sad state of our country's politics that Republican lawmakers are now prepared to legislate things out of existence that might potentially annoy them  -- because God forbid we allow individual airlines and consumers figure out whether or not the benefits of in-flight cell phone chatter outweigh the costs.

To be fair to Republicans, they aren't the only ones pushing this anti-market nonsense. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is perhaps a walking stereotype of the regulation-can-do-no-wrong Democrat and has for years supported an in-flight voice communications ban. But at least at the time, John Mica, then the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, questioned the wisdom of such nanny state interventionism:

"I do believe this is important that we don't make what is already a crowded and difficult environment for the traveling public and flight attendants" worse by allowing cell phone use in-flight, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., sponsor of the Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace (HANG UP) Act.

But Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said there are a lot of annoying things on airplanes, including children with dirty diapers and noisy MP3 players, but that doesn't mean they should be banned.

"You are trying to legislate courtesy, folks, and that just doesn't work," Mica said.

That was 2008. But with both parties increasingly seeing eye-to-eye on the drive to "legislate courtesy," as Rep. Mica put it, free market experimentation in voice communications in-flight appears less and less likely.

Photo credit: CrispyRice on flickr.