GOP fighting cellphone freedom

Should the federal government outlaw rudeness? Some senior Republican lawmakers seem to think so. Since 1991, the Federal Communications Commission has barred cellphone use on airplanes to prevent interference with ground-based mobile networks. But, as new technology has relieved concerns, the FCC is seeking to relax the rule.

The FCC's proposal has sparked a political backlash in Congress, led by Republicans who apparently think "small government" should have the role of policing annoying behavior. House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced a bill to ban in-flight phone calls, while Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., teamed up with California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein to do the same thing.

Republican hypocrisy

It wasn't that long ago that Republican leaders voiced skepticism of legislating etiquette. Reacting to a 2008 bill seeking to outlaw in-flight voice communications, then-House Transportation Committee ranking member John Mica, R-Fla., told his colleagues, "You are trying to legislate courtesy, folks, and that just doesn't work."

Not to be outdone by lawmakers, Department of Transportation officials have signaled interest in a similar regulatory path. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said he intends to use his department's consumer protection powers to prohibit voice communications aboard flights. Federal law restricts this authority to addressing unfair or deceptive practices, unfair methods of competition and discrimination. Attempting to expand that power to include regulation of in-flight voice communications would likely be an overreach.

In addition, a flight attendants' union is lobbying Congress and others to ban airborne cellphone calls over, among other things, the supposed risk of "air rage."

While the DOT's Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for regulating cabin safety, there is no evidence in-flight cellphone use would spark violence.

Ignoring reality

This fear mongering ignores technological advances and other countries' experiences. If the FCC were to relax its current rule, most airlines would likely restrict voice communications on their own, while others might cater to travelers who wish to talk on their cellphones in-flight if they are willing to pay for the privilege.

Airlines would need to install special cellular devices called picocells, which can enable texting, e-mail and Web browsing, while restricting voice communications. This technology has been successfully deployed by major European and Middle Eastern airlines since 2008, with no demonstrable increase in air rage. Leaving a blanket ban in place would forestall experimentation and potentially major benefits for the traveling public. Claiming lawmakers or bureaucrats are more in tune with airline passengers than the airlines who serve them is absurd.

The best public policy governing in-flight cellphone use is no policy at all. As Obama-appointed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently said, "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." When a Democratic bureaucrat calls for eliminating outmoded regulations, Republicans should applaud, not throw a fit.