Leave federal regulations for issues of safety and health
Holiday air travel can be plenty stressful, what with packed planes, cramped seats, stuffed overhead bins, and threats of storm-related delays and cancellations.
Now, on top of all this, the government is moving to lift its longtime ban on in-flight cellphone calls at cruising altitudes. Great. This raises the prospect that pilots' announcements about the Grand Canyon off to the left will soon compete with snippets of people's last surgery, lost loves, broken dates, bad bosses, surly teenagers, adorable pets and quarterly sales quotas.
OPPOSING VIEW: Keep the cabins free of cellphone chatter
We feel your potential pain, but on issues involving comfort and convenience — rather than safety or health — the marketplace is better suited than the government to sort out the rules.
The Federal Communications Commission banned in-flight cellphone use in 1991 because the constant search for signals from the air could interfere with ground service. Newer technology eliminates that worry, so it's time for the FCC to bow out. If that happens, it will be up to each airline to decide, and that's as it should be.
As airlines weigh blabathons at cruising altitude, they'd be smart to listen to customers and employees, who have not been shy in expressing their views on the subject.
The nation's largest flight attendants union said voice calls could be "loud, divisive, and possibly disruptive." Today host Matt Lauer suggested that you should be able to talk only if "you get into the overhead compartment." Headline writers likened cellphones on a plane to the 2006 movie Snakes on a Plane. "Are they trying to start a war up there?" asked columnist Mitch Albom.
Hopefully not. Delta Air Lines promptly said it wouldn't allow voice calls. Other airlines equivocated.
The FCC is scheduled to take up the issue on Dec. 12. If it ultimately lifts the ban, there are plenty of ways to sort this out sensibly. Europe already has.
The same technology that would enable cellphone service would allow carriers to set limits on it. An airline could turn on the technology for one 15-minute period during a flight or at certain intervals. Virgin Atlantic, a British carrier with flights from London to the United States, lets only six callers use the service at one time. According to a spokesman, most use it to text, not talk.
Because an end to the ban would also open the way for phone texts and e-mails, there's really little need to talk. The high cost of potential fees by airlines or phone companies is likely to discourage much in-flight chatter.
Then again, knowing how airlines operate these days — putting passengers in fear of miserable circumstances and allowing them to buy their way out — we think we see where this is headed: new fees for quiet zones and earplugs.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.