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A passenger in Boston checked her cellphone before a flight.

Matt Slocum • Associated Press,

Voices of concern

“Over the past few weeks, we have heard of concerns raised by airlines, travelers, flight attendants, members of Congress and others who are troubled over the idea of passengers’ talking on cellphones in flight — and I am concerned about this possibility as well.”

ANTHONY FOXX, secretary of transportation, to the New York Times

Ban in-flight cellphone calls

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • December 16, 2013 - 5:41 PM

The U.S. Department of Transportation reportedly is considering a ban on using cellphones for voice calls on commercial airlines, despite a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that would have allowed such use. Add our voice to the majority of fliers, flight attendants, airline executives and others who back such a ban. It would be a rare but encouraging victory for common sense and civility.

The FCC ruling wasn’t an endorsement. In fact, each of the five FCC commissioners expressed personal reservations about allowing in-flight calls. But the commission did its job by making its decision based on evidence that allowing in-flight calls would pose no technological problem, not one based on individual judgments about the desirability of such a move.

The Transportation Department, however, should more broadly consider the wisdom of allowing loud talkers to further stress fliers. The airlines seem to be speaking out against about not wanting passengers talking on cellphones during flights. Some, including Delta, which has major operations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said they would not allow in-flight calls even if the federal government did.

Some have advocated that government should deregulate in-flight cellphone calls and leave the marketplace to make the final decision. That’s good in theory, and it should be the default arrangement on most consumer issues. But with the increasing consolidation of the airline industry, in which most U.S. airports act as a hub for one or maybe two carriers, fliers have few options on selecting airlines. We’re encouraged, frankly, in this era of fees on everything from baggage to seat selection, that the airlines didn’t look at this as yet another opportunity to charge more for the right to make cellphone calls — or, worse, for a seat in a quieter section of the plane.

Economics may be influencing the carriers’ attitudes, however. The airlines would need to add a device to the underside of airplanes in order to get a cellphone signal above a certain altitude. We hope they will still consider adding that equipment. While there is every reason to ban cellphone calls, there is no reason not to allow cellphones to send silent text messages or e-mails. The issue isn’t one of communication, but civility, and text messages or e-mails from cellphones could allow communication.

Beyond federal bureaucracies and big business, it was everyday Americans who are most responsible for the movement toward a ban. They spoke up about hanging up once airborne, and in this case it appears their voices were heard. A recently released Associated Press-GfK poll reports that 48 percent oppose allowing cellphone calls while flying, with 30 percent strongly opposing it. Conversely, 19 percent favored allowing calls, with only 7 percent strongly favoring it. Another third had no opinion.

Americans, like people worldwide, have generally embraced the technological transformations that were the stuff of science fiction just a generation or so ago. But these newfound connections have often been disconnected to social graces. In particular, loud cellphone talking annoys many. Mostly, it’s harmless, but that may not be the case in the context of air travel, which long ago lost its Pan Am-era glamour. It’s best not to test fliers’ patience even further with in-flight cellphone calls.

Some in Congress have suggested passing a law prohibiting in-flight calls. But this can be accomplished by the Department of Transportation, which should make it official.

© 2014 Star Tribune