If you travel frequently in the United States, you've probably noticed that previous restrictions on electronic devices have eased dramatically, and that it's now possible to use anything other than a full-blown laptop during airplane takeoffs and landings. But the US Department of Transportation is about to formally expand one device restriction that should please anyone who spends a lot of time locked in an airplane with hundreds of other people: It is going to ban the use of cellular phone calls.
The irony? This restriction has nothing at all to do with technology. Instead, US DOT general counsel Kathryn Thomson said in a recent speech that federal regulators were concerned that "disruptive voices" in the confined space within a plane would lead to passenger altercations, threatening everyone's safety. So they're going to nip this one in the bud.
News of the pending decision was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
With device restrictions going by the wayside, some had called on US regulatory agencies to take the next obvious step and allow passengers to use the communications services—phone calls, texting, and Internet access—on their phones and other devices. And while they're open to the other technologies being more broadly used, the government has heard and understood arguments about how disruptive people can be when they talk on their phones in public. And such disruptions could turn into serious issues when people are locked in a tiny tube in the sky for hours with unruly mouth breathers.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December said it would consider tossing out rules that prevented in-flight cellular calls. But a swell of complaints about such a change led the DOT to step in. The DOT takes precedence over the FCC in this case, so any DOT ruling would effectively become formal policy. And it says that passengers and flight-crew members are "overwhelmingly" against allowing in-flight phone use.
The International Air Transport Association says that the US DOT is exceeding its authority and that airlines should be allowed to determine whether passengers can make phone calls. That said, virtually all US-based airlines would apparently choose to ban the use of cellular phone calls if given the option. Some, however, may wish to offer in-flight phone booths or quiet areas, similar to the quiet car on some Amtrak trains.
Given the modern state of communications, losing the ability to make cellular phone calls would pose little actual restriction on passengers, especially when text messaging and Internet-based communications options were available. Banning the use of cellular phone calls on flights—as well as similar Internet-based phone calls like Skype and Facetime—is clearly the correct and sane thing to do.