No, We Don’t Need To Allow People To Make Cellphone Calls On Airplanes

Imagine all these people talking on the cellphones during a long flight, or even a short one.

Airplane Coach Class

Several weeks ago I noted that the Federal Aviation Administration had lifted its previous all encompassing ban on the use of electronics on aircraft during all phases of flight. This brought an end to a policy that pretty much everyone admitted had no real logic to it given that there was no evidence that using smartphones, iPads, Kindles and the like during takeoff, in-flight, or landing had any real impact on the operations of even the most electronically sophisticated of modern airliners. Under the new policy, it is still technically within the discretion of individual carriers to decide how broadly they want to allow electronic use (for example, some may decide that using these devices during certain phases of flight could be a safety risk due to the danger of objects flying about the cabin), but most airliners seem to be moving rather quickly to allow liberal use of all electronics during all phases of a flight. Now, however, the debate is moving on to something completely different, and public opinion seems to be far less united on the issue.

Specifically I’m referring to the announcement this week that the Federal Communications Commission would be examining whether to allow people to make and receive cell phone calls while a plane is in flight:

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday that it would consider changing its rules to permit the use of cellphones and other wireless-data devices during airline flights. If approved, the change is certain to delight some passengers but frustrate many others.

Any change, which was placed on the agenda for the commission’s Dec. 12 meeting, is still months away, requiring a public comment period of weeks and a final draft of the rules. But it would constitute a major shift for airline passengers.

The use of cellphones during flights has been vigorously opposed by many passengers and by flight attendants, although some airlines in Asia and Europe already offer cell service. In the United States, the flight attendants union immediately urged the F.C.C. not to proceed with the proposal.

An F.C.C. official said airlines in the United States would be given the option of outfitting their planes with equipment that would allow the use of cellphones once a plane climbed above 10,000 feet, but the airlines would not be required to provide the service.

Tom Wheeler, the F.C.C. chairman, said the new rules, if adopted, would “expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband,” meaning the commission thinks both Wi-Fi and wireless cellphone data plans could be used.

“Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules,” Mr. Wheeler said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the F.A.A. and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

A swift negative reaction came from the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing airline workers.

“Flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment,” the union said in a statement. “Any situation that is loud, divisive and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe.”

And it’s not just flight attendants who are reacting negatively to the idea of people being able to use cellphones on airliners, the flying public doesn’t seem to be too thrilled about it either:

One FCC commissioner received hundreds of e-mails complaining that the move would lead to unbearable noise pollution, an aide said. Passengers are already crammed into smaller seats and tighter rows, and being forced to listen to one another’s calls would be yet another indignity, they wrote.

petition quickly went up on the White House Web site Thursday, asking the Obama administration to stop the effort. “This would make an already cranky, uncomfortable travel experience exponentially worse, and as a frequent flier and concerned citizen, I think the administration ne eds to nip this in the bud,” a resident from Richmond wrote.

Wendy Evans, a San Diego resident who frequently travels to Seattle, Las Vegas and the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina for work and to visit family, mourned the potential loss of one of the last refuges from cellphones.

“I travel a lot and consider my time in the air a chance for many things — reading, thinking, sleeping or catching up on work but certainly not for listening to people chat on the phone,” she said.


“I would rather insert sharp objects under my fingernails than have to sit next to that,” said Larry Irving, a technology consultant and a former assistant secretary of commerce during the Clinton administration. Irving, who logs 150,000 to 200,000 miles of air travel each year, doubts airlines can create a quiet, cellphone-free section, even in business class.

“The problem is there is no way to get away,” he said.

Jonathan Capehart calls the FCC’s idea “hell on earth”:

Air travel is an abomination. Getting to the gate is a combination obstacle course and striptease. Airplanes are cramped Greyhound buses with wings and passengers dress accordingly. And now a rule change is being considered that is guaranteed to make flying more of a living hell.


There are all sorts of real concerns about this possible rule change. The one I’ve heard most often so far is about safety. Folks won’t pay attention to those in-flight announcements about turbulence or other serious emergencies. But, as is her wont, my colleague Jo-Ann Armao spoke for millions when she gave this insane idea a big thumbs down.

“It’s a public safety issue,” she said, “because I will KILL someone.”

Jazz Shaw expresses similar sentiments:

[I]f you allow people to start using cell phones on planes, I’m fairly sure that I’m going to kill somebody. I fly more than I want to and the flights are getting worse and worse in terms of leg space, service and pretty much everything else. The one saving grace is that most everyone else – even if traveling with a companion in the next seat – is pretty much as miserable as me. For the most part we all sit there sullenly, reading our analog books (in my case) or digital device. Napping is fine if you can manage it… I’ll even forgive you if you snore. But if I have to sit through four hours with some chipper little co-ed chirping “Oh ma’ god!!!!!’ and going on endlessly about the pointless minutia of her life into her phone, I’ll be hard pressed to not attempt an experiment to see if she can be shoved through the double plated window.

Ed Morrissey, meanwhile, notes that there’s a big difference between allowing the use of electronics, including Internet access, in flight and allowing people to make and receive phone calls:

There is a qualitative difference between allowing electronic devices such as tablets and laptops to operate during flight, and having your seatmate chatter all flight long into a cellphone about his personal life.  The attendants hate the idea of cell phones in flight, because thanks to the nature of economy class, people are already cranky enough being crowded together like sardines for several hours of flight.  If cell phone calls are allowed, it’s only going to make the situation worse — which is why the airline unions opposed a similar proposal in 2004, and are likely to oppose it again this time around.

I don’t fly nearly as much as I used to, but I’ve honestly got to say that this strikes me as a horrible idea. Whether it’s cramped spaces or that person behind you is kicking to back of the seat too much or whatever, there are already enough annoyances on an airplane flight that one has to deal with, adding the prospect of people all around you talking on their cellphones about nothing in particular to the list would be nearly unbearable. Indeed, one of the worst flights I’ve ever been on was a flight from Baltimore to Cleveland where the person behind me, who unsurprisingly turned out to be a young college co-ed, quite literally talked non-stop from the moment the cabin door closed at BWI to the moment it opened at Cleveland Hopkins. If I’d only been subjected to it for the normal two hours or so of the flight it would have been one thing, but we ended up spending almost an entire hour on the ground in Baltimore due to weather and the need to go through a second de-icing procedure before taking off. As we were finally landing that night, the guy sitting next to me, who had spent the most of the flight quietly working on business papers, or I assume trying to work given the constant chatter, gave a quick glance behind us and whispered to me “Thank God it’s almost over.” A sentiment I could heartily agree with. The idea that this young woman could have spent the entire flight engaged in a one way conversation on her cell phone would, I think, just made that entire experience worse. That was almost ten years ago, and I still remember the experience.

It’s already possible, of course, to make phone calls in-flight on many planes used by major commercial carriers, especially on international and longer domestic flights. I’ve been on many flights that have those hand devices on the back of the seat in front of you, or in the armrest, and if you’re willing to pay an arm and a leg in per minute charges, you can make a call to your heart’s content. My understanding is that such options are even more common for those flying Business or First Class. However, I’ll honestly say that in my years I have only rarely seen anyone using these devices, largely no doubt because of the super-premium charges that the airlines charge. Given that it’s likely that carriers would also charge some kind of premium for the ability to access their cellular “network,” which in most cases is really satellite based, perhaps few people would take advantage of the service. Frankly, though, I wouldn’t want to take the risk.

Richard Bennett makes the point that, notwithstanding the major inconveniences now associated with air travel, the airplane cabin is the last refuge that many people have from the hyper-connected 24/7 business world. The availability of Internet connectivity has already ended that refuge to some degree since bosses can now expect their employees to be available via email even while flying, but that has the advantage of at least being a quiet activity for the most part.  Cellphone conversations most definitely are not quiet and, as many have already expressed, allowing them would just make flying in a metal tube even more of an unpleasant experience than it already is, unless, of course, you happen to be one of those lucky people in First Class.

So FCC, count me among those who are an emphatic no on this proposal.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. John Burgess says:

    Enhanced Air Rage… brought to you by the FCC!

    Not all ideas are good ideas; just because something is technologically possible does not mean that it should be done.

  2. Stonetools says:

    Oh, Doug, you’re just an old fuddy duddy, but then, so I am, so I agree with you here. But wait a second, shouldn’t we let the magic of the market work here? What have you got against private choice and free enterprise deciding the issue?

  3. rudderpedals says:

    So today we like regulations. Okayyy

  4. CSK says:

    Can we get the death penalty for people who crack gum? Now that’s a piece of legislation I could really get behind.

  5. @Stonetools:

    I don’t really have a problem with that, indeed I think that the general response to the FCC even floating the idea of considering allowing this demonstrates that carriers would be risking real customer backlashes if they were to go forward with installing the necessary equipment.

    The biggest problem they’d face would be the fact that it would be pretty hard to create the in-flight equivalent of a “quiet car” like Amtrak has, especially in Coach Class.

  6. Todd says:

    If it’s determined to not be a safety issue, then the FCC shouldn’t keep the ban. It sounds to me like the main argument against allowing cell phone calls is that (some/many) passengers are likely to be annoyed. If that’s the case, then it’s probably better for the airlines themselves to set the rules for when cell phone use is, or is not, acceptable.

  7. Todd says:

    It could even be a marketing strategy … when booking a flight, do you go with a carrier that allows in-flight calls, or one that discourages cell phone use?

  8. Woody says:

    After a quarter century of using highway on-ramps, child-centric restaurants, general admission rock shows, and stripmall parking lots, I’m sure that coach-class mobile users will take care not to bother their fellow armrest sharers.

    Which reminds me, why do we sheeple accept the cleats of tyranny of Hussein Obama and the screeching liberals of the Supreme Court when it comes to the Second Amendment on airplanes? As I take care to arm myself at school, church, and the O.R., I fail to see why I must place myself at risk just because I’m flying to Fresno. Now, only the terrorists have guns.

  9. edmondo says:

    Any chance they can ban the reclining seats as well? There’s nothing like a country trip watching the fat, bald guy head for 6 hours as he leans back into my very limited space.

  10. jukeboxgrad says:

    As a few people have mentioned, why is this an FCC matter? The carrier should decide, and the FCC should have nothing to do with it. As Todd said: “it’s probably better for the airlines themselves to set the rules.”

    Also, earplugs (or noise-isolating in-ear earphones for music/movies; example). These can be highly effective. I can’t understand why any frequent flier is not already equipped.

    Also, sometimes eavesdropping can be a feature, not a bug. Link:

    This dude just eavesdropped on former NSA director Michael Hayden. And he’s tweeting about it.

  11. de stijl says:

    I want James Woods and Penn Jillette bracketing every Indispensable who needs to make that call because he / she is indisputably Indispensable. Wells Far Go or Baker’s Trust will surely fail entirely unless you make this very important call. Surely you can handle a little bad natured heckling? You are the Indispensable!

  12. JKB says:

    One way to deal with this is to stop being polite to the cell phone a-holes. When trapped with their conversation, start participating, discuss the topics with your tubemates. The co-ed will be indignant but should soon get the message. Plus you can have great fun. “Oh my god!” He’s so dreamy” “What was that address again?”

    Stop tolerating it, or suffering it. Get involved with the conversation.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB: I like that. I really do.

    As to

    the airplane cabin is the last refuge that many people have from the hyper-connected 24/7 business world.

    If this is true for you, you have a problem, a real problem. I quite often do not answer my phone… ‘cause I don’t want to. I reserve the right to my own peace of mind. Don’t like it? Fwck off. If your boss thinks your collecting a paycheck from him gives him the right to run your life 24/7? Quit. Drive that Mercedes for 5 years instead of 2. How many TVs can you watch at the same time? Eat at home. Etc.

    Oh, and my voice mail message? “Don’t bother. If I’d wanted to talk to you, I would have answered the phone.”

  14. Ben says:

    1.) The fact that you find a specific thing personally annoying is not a good reason to make something illegal. If enough people find it annoying, the companies can ban it on their own.

    2.) Honestly, most people I know under the age of 35 barely ever even talk to each other on the phone anymore. Almost all of our interactions (when we’re not together in person) is either tweets, facebook messages or texts. The great majority of people who would be on the phone a lot during a flight are doing it for business.

  15. Rafer Janders says:


    One way to deal with this is to stop being polite to the cell phone a-holes.

    JKB, we often disagree, but on this field I will fight and die shoulder to shoulder with you. You are my brother.

  16. anjin-san says:

    @ Doug

    So you like a certain noise level (or lack of) when flying and you are happy to have the government regulate people’s behavior to keep things the way you like them?

  17. Rafer Janders says:


    Well, that IS the libertarian approa…hey, wait a minute.

  18. Ron Beasley says:

    I haven’t flown much since I retired but when I was still working I flew a lot and it was usually long flights, 4 to 10 hours. I can’t really imagine sitting next to someone talking on the phone the entire time.

  19. rodney dill says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: don’t hold back say how you really feel.

  20. This is why God invented ear plugs and buds.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    Stewardess in a cartoon, I think in the New Yorker.

    In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down in front of you for five dollars.

    They’ll all equip the planes for cell usage and they’ll find some way to charge for it.

  22. al-Ameda says:

    I commute to work on a ferry every morning and evening, and it seems that at any moment over 50% of the people are on their phones, and very very few people are making calls – they’re texting, checking messages, some are gaming, others on twitter or facebook. Making phone calls is getting to be very yesterday.

    Perhaps a plane environment will be different, I don’t know. I always have my music, an iPod, for the purpose of tuning out conversations. Usually it’s not a problem.

  23. wr says:

    I’ve got no problem with the cell phone ban, but as I’m writing this from the American Airlines lounge at the Rio de Janeiro international airport — damn fine empanadas here! — I can’t say enough how thrilled I am that when I flew down here I was allowed to keep reading on my iPad and never had to turn it off.

    And since it looks like I’ll be doing this trip several times a year, I went ahead and invested $300 in a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones. So actually, I really don’t care if anyone talks on the phone around me — I can’t hear them!

  24. Grewgills says:

    As much as people will complain about it, I am willing to bet that when given the choice most Americans will choose to have the access and it won’t be long before most flights allow access.

  25. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Wait a minute… wait a minute…

    C’mon people!

    Phones on planes… MAKING a call from a plane… is NOT new!

    Pre 9-11, many planes were installed with AirPhones.


    They were either available at every seat, or in several different locations on the plane.

    Post-911, they were yanked off the planes, because they could not quickly work out the support issues, if they would be a risk, going through security, etc…

    Because of being in a tech role, I had a chance to use them on occasion, and yes, their cost was up there, so it limited the length of the conversation.

    Due to cost, while the availability was there, they were very infrequently used.

    Folks… don’t make me feel old here.

    Phones on planes used to work, and they will likely work again.

    Quit being such whiny precious snowflakes.

  26. James Pearce says:

    Cellphone conversations most definitely are not quiet and, as many have already expressed, allowing them would just make flying in a metal tube even more of an unpleasant experience than it already is

    Conversations between passengers aren’t quiet either, though. They may actually be twice as loud.

    I think allowing cellphone calls would do a lot towards making flying in a metal tube a more pleasant experience for a lot of people. And I’m cool with that. Life should be good.

  27. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    I have a simple solution to obnoxious conversers in public: I just start participating in the discussion. It messes them up something fierce.

  28. JWH says:

    I don’t care about cell phones. I just want to make sure the pilot didn’t have fish for dinner.

  29. Bkhuna says:

    It’s not bad enough that we have to deal with all the hassles just getting to the plane. Now we’re held hostage in a cattle car while obnoxious, self-absorbed passengers spend hours talking about the most inane aspects of their lives.

    I can see in-air violence escalating.

    I also see the days where I fly coming to an end.

  30. C. Clavin says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:
    Well yeah… Especially because nothing you contribute to the discussion is ever true.

  31. C. Clavin says:

    Breaking news…
    Deal reached with Iran.
    Nobel Committee vindicated.

  32. wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: “I have a simple solution to obnoxious conversers in public: I just start participating in the discussion. It messes them up something fierce. ”

    I’ve never come across a human being so eager to boast that wherever he goes, people hate him… and seemingly so completely un-self aware of how every other human being perceives that.

  33. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: @wr: What’s it like to go through life like you two, just looking for punch bowls to drop turds in to?

    On second thought, please don’t answer that.

  34. says:

    I would rather suspect the wireless companies will rather quietly come out against FCC allowing anything except for the wifi calling on planes (which they already have on some flights). There are several technical issues that make long flight wireless calling much more difficult (roaming and handovers immediately jump to mind); I suspect the wireless companies would be happy to not deal with those while saying our hands are tied by the FCC.

    As for wifi calling that would be easy for the airlines to put a hefty premium service fee on since they would control the router. I don’t see this as too much of an issue.

  35. Grewgills says:
    Do you actually have roaming charges on your cell plan when in the US? I thought that ended 10 years ago.
    Other than the relatively few people on paygo phones, we are generally hooked to a monthly plan, so the cell companies lose nothing and gain a new revenue stream by teaming with airlines.

  36. Grewgills says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:
    People actually talking on cell phones has rarely ever bothered me and in those rare cases moving a few feet or simply making eye contact has been plenty to resolve the issue. People playing their music too loud or letting their children play their games at high volume is a much more common annoyance and that is already allowed and is, in my experience, much more difficult to deal with. Most parents when politely asked to do something about game volume comply, but there are those few that treat it like you asking to beat their child.

  37. anjin-san says:

    @ Grewgills

    I think Jenos is just angry that the world is full of people that have other people in their lives who want to talk to them.

  38. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Grewgills: The last time was in a public restroom; a guy in a stall was having a very inane discussion. I started answering his questions — “so, what’s it like there now?” and whatnot.

  39. says:

    I’m not really thinking about the charges (though you can bet wireless companies will, they get charged when you roam even if they don’t pass it on directly to you) so much as the technical side of it. The ability to roam has to be built into the network as a user moves in and out of their home network; it is hard enough to keep working so users don’t notice on the ground (where it is easily tested and analyzed). Being six miles above the coverage area footprint and moving hundreds of miles per hour is going to cause weird network hiccups at best.

  40. Leon Vlug says:

    Just imagine, in the seat at the right a woman with a growling emotional support animal in her lap and in the seat at the left a think-he-is-important businessman yapping on his cell phone. Have a nice flight!!

  41. grumpy realist says:

    If I’m allowed to add my two cents, it’s not only no, but HELL NO. I have enough problems sitting on the train next to some 18-year old bimbo on the cell phone whose every second word is “like.” And that’s only for 15 minutes. A 14 hour flight next to gabsters? Yikes.

    I still think there is a market slot for an airline that is operated according to the old rules, as well as No Children Unless They’re Drugged. I’ve had enough flights with kids kicking the back of the seat or pulling my hair that I Want. Them. Quieted. I don’t want the whistle shrieks of an unhappy baby in my ear.

  42. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @grumpy realist: This may be the first time I’ve wholeheartedly endorsed anything you’ve said. I’m noting the date and time.