The federal Communications Commission may permit airlines to experiment with allowing passengers to use cellphones in flight, officials said last week. The agency should do so, and airlines should get on with experimenting. Permission is not requirement; a change in federal rules would not necessarily mean the ruination of air travel for all time.
We sympathize with anyone whose immediate reaction is to recoil at the prospect of having to listen for hours to a loudmouth with unlimited mobile minutes. Air travel is uncomfortable enough. But the FCC's move wouldn't guarantee such an outcome. Rather, it would leave matters to airlines and their passengers, which is as it should be.
The proposal before the FCC would simply admit that there are no dangers or technical complications to transferring voice and data to and from mobile phones in the air, as long as the right technology is on board.
Until now, the FCC worried that airborne mobile phone use would interfere with ground-based cell networks. Now that carriers in Europe and Asia have shown it can be done safely, the government's telecommunications regulator has no sound reason to keep its restrictions. Its rules are outdated, and they should go.
Once gone, airlines and travelers would decide what to do. Carriers would have all sorts of possibilities to suit a range of passenger preferences. They could allow a limited number of simultaneous phone conversations. They could let passengers retrieve data or send text messages but not talk. They could create quiet cabins or designate entire flights as no-phone zones, if that's what customers want.
Airline staff would have all the leverage in enforcing the rules, because they would control the equipment that would connect passengers to cellphone networks. Beyond the rules, costs would also constrain cellphone users; they would be charged roaming rates for their conversations.
There's a distinct possibility that some carriers would not allow any mobile phone use. It is already legal for air passengers to make calls over onboard WiFi connections, but airlines don't permit it. Some travelers are waging a campaign against anything that might lead to more noise in cramped airplanes. Major airlines did not rush to celebrate the FCC's announcement.
The immediate impact of the FCC ridding the country of its unnecessary rule, then, may well be small. Yet we hope that carriers explore their options to bring air travel into the 21st century, with all its pluses and minuses.
While some passengers mourn the disappearance of their last disconnected refuge, others will embrace the convenience of connection. Either way, there's no reason for the government to play referee.