The Federal Communications Commission has sparked controversy in recent weeks by taking steps towards reconsidering its ban on in-flight cell phone use. This move provoked outrage from frequent flyers, many of whom expressed concerns about the possibility of being stuck on a flight next to someone yapping on a cellphone. Flight attendants’ and pilots’ unions also weighed in against the proposal. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation announced that it is considering its own ban on cell phone use based on what is “fair to consumers.”
There’s no doubt that loud cell-phone yappers are irritating. But the public outcry over this issue is misguided and appears to be driven by an attitude of casual illiberalism: “If I find something annoying or rude, the government should ban it.”
It is certainly true that cell phone use on flights can create spillover costs for other passengers. In this respect, cell phone use is similar to pollution: having to listen to a seatmate’s loud cell phone conversation is similar to having to breathe dirty air due to factory smoke. This analogy seems to suggest a role for the government in banning – or at least regulating – in-flight cell phone use.
But this analysis misses an important point. Cell phone use is not permitted in movie theaters, concert halls, and day spas. How on earth did this happen without a government decree? It happened because business owners – motivated by profit – were able to figure out what pleases their customers. They were able to weigh the lost profits from customers who are annoyed by cell phone use against the lost profits from customers who like to use their cell phones everywhere.
Indeed, it might be a good idea to ban cell phone use on flights. But that’s a decision that can reasonably be left up to the airlines. Some airlines may ban cell phone calls entirely. Others may choose to operate specific flights that allow phone calls, or to establish a section on each flight in which calls are permitted. Still others may choose to ban calls on overnight flights. Regardless, they will make these decisions by weighing the competing preferences of consumers who vote with their wallets.
As FCC chairman Tom Wheeler put it, “We simply propose that because new technology makes the old rule obsolete, the FCC should get government out from between airlines and their passengers. Where there is not a need for regulation, the free market works best to determine the appropriate outcome.”
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