New in-flight mobile phone rules could inspire airlines to catch fliers with honey, not vinegar

24 November 2013 by Steve Blum
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Have you ever been in a federal prison, Joey?

With the possible exception of screaming children, I can’t think of anything I’d like less on an airplane than a cabin full of loud and one-sided mobile phone conversations. Even bringing back smoking would be preferable: at least that section of the plane used to be relatively child free. Allowing in-flight mobile phone calls would push the U.S. airline experience from miserable to pure hellish.

That said, Tom Wheeler is correct when he said last week “modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules”. The new FCC chairman’s brief remarks on Thursday unleashed a storm of protests, resulting in lengthy clarifications on Friday.

Roger Sherman, the head of the wireless communications bureau, responded on the FCC’s official blog. In a 7 paragraph post he said no less than 8 times if the commission adopts new rules, airlines will have the final decision. Vigorously passing the buck to the airlines is exactly the right thing to do. As another commission statement (24 finger-jabs at the airlines in 14 paragraphs) put it…

The responsibility of the FCC is to make a decision as to the technical issues involved, not the behavioral issues. The technical question before the Commission is whether mobile devices (operated subject to appropriate technical limits) would cause interference to terrestrial networks.

Just so. The FCC’s primary job is to regulate the technical aspects of electronic communications. Forays into consumer protection notwithstanding, the commission has no business telling people how to behave or restricting a private company’s customer service choices.

Airline staff, and particularly flight attendants, have gotten used to wielding federal laws and regulations to manage passengers. That attitude is a major cause of the deteriorating civility in U.S. civil aviation. It might be too much to hope, but the proposed new mobile phone rules might push airlines into using enticement rather than legal controls to create a positive experience and environment for passengers.