House Committee to Markup Bill Banning In-Flight Cell Phone Calls

Tomorrow morning (Tuesday, February 11), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will markup the Prohibiting In-Flight Voice Communications on Mobile Wireless Devices Act (H.R. 3676). The bill would bar travelers from making cell phone calls on commercial flights—a response to the Federal Communications Commission’s recent proposal to relax its longstanding ban on in-flight cell phone use.

H.R. 3676 purports to solve a problem that doesn’t exist by depriving consumers of travel choices, as I explained recently in an op-ed in USA Today. To be sure, I sympathize with travelers who fear being stuck next to a chattering bore for a long flight. However, the FCC’s deregulatory steps wouldn’t require any airline to offer voice calls in-flight; rather, the new rules would merely permit airlines to experiment with in-flight calling if they so choose.

The bill’s sponsors concede that some in-flight phone calls are acceptable, exempting Airfone-style in-seat phone calls from the ban. If voice calls on commercial flights are so bad, why continue to allow some passengers to make them on some planes?

Supporters of the bill have fretted about the prospect of passengers loudly yakking away on long in-flight cell phone calls. Yet the technology that enables in-flight cell phone calls usually charges roaming rates for voice calls, discouraging passengers from spending hours on the phone.

In fact, we already have a pretty good idea how flyers react when they can make in-flight cell phone calls. As the Federal Aviation Administration found, based on experience from many other countries in which cell phones may be used in-flight, the average call only lasts two minutes. Most in-flight cell phone use involves text messages and data, not voice. It’s quite unlikely, therefore, that anyone will find themselves stuck next to a passenger who chats on their phone for a long flight.

According to a major flight attendants’ union, the bill is needed to prevent the “air rage” that will supposedly ensue if cell phone calls are allowed during flight. But the FAA examined this theory as well; its study could not identify a single instance of “air rage” occurring due to in-flight voice communications in the countries where these services have been available since 2008.

Even if some of these concerns hold water, why should we trust Congress to dictate how airlines run their businesses? Once upon a time, bureaucrats in Washington “oversaw” nearly every aspect of the aviation business, down to the size of in-flight sandwiches. The result? Flying was unaffordable and competition was minimal.

Airlines can and should decide whether to allow in-flight voice calls and on which planes. Several major airlines, such as Delta, have already said they don’t plan to permit passenger voice communications aboard their aircraft. Someday, perhaps airlines will be able to better accommodate talkative passengers, just as Amtrak does with its Quiet Car. Some passengers may even grow accustomed to in-flight cell phone chatter—and the freedom to call their loved ones from the skies. Either way, lawmakers can best serve consumers by staying out of this marketplace decision.