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Relax: They’re Phones, Not Snakes on a Plane

Robert M. McDowell

As 2013 comes to a close, the United States faces a mountain of public policy challenges: a ballooning national debt, a constant terror threat, a lackluster economy, nuclear proliferation, gridlock in Washington and many other issues that will fundamentally affect our children’s future. But what recent news has produced a disproportionate amount of anxiety-inducing headlines in the past month? The prospect of people potentially having the freedom to talk on cellphones or using tablets while on airplanes. Really?

What the Federal Communications Commission will officially propose to do on Dec. 12 is not the high-tech version of the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson film Snakes on a Plane, where reptiles terrorize air passengers. So let’s all take a deep breath and learn what is and what is not happening at the FCC. Here’s a quick primer.

On Thursday, the commission will vote to launch a public comment period on proposed rules that, if adopted later, would legally recognize that certain consumer electronic devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, do not harmfully interfere with aircraft equipment, therefore lifting a government ban on the use of certain wireless technologies in flight. It’s that simple.

The FCC is merely taking a step toward doing something it should have done years ago: modernize its rules to reflect the current realities of science and technology. In 1991, when cell phones and avionics were primitive compared to today’s gear, the FCC and its sister agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, became concerned that new devices might interfere with some aircraft equipment. To be safe, the government implemented a ban on using certain electronics during specific times during commercial flights. The ban was to stay in place until proper testing could be completed. That was 22 years ago. Since then, both government and airline engineers have become confident that most low-powered consumer electronics do not harmfully interfere with planes’ systems and pose no safety threat.

Think about it: Have you ever sat near people on a plane who secretly kept their phones on during takeoffs and landings despite flight attendants’ admonitions to turn them off? Of course you have. (I won’t ask if you are guilty of such “disobedience.”) Did your plane spin out of control as a result? I didn’t think so.

The FCC is America’s expert agency on communications technology. A big part of its mission is to test electronics to make sure they don’t interfere with other devices. If the gadgets work according to legal and engineering standards, the commission must approve them. That’s what it is proposing to do.

The rest of the story is up to the marketplace. The angst over whether planes may become as loud as the floor of the old New York Stock Exchange is misplaced. After the FCC issues new rules next year, airlines will work with the FAA to decide how to handle the issue from there.

Good old-fashioned economics may resolve the situation, as usual. I have a sneaking suspicion that if consumers rebel and demand relative silence on flights, airlines will find a way to accommodate them. (Disclaimer: I like my quiet and unconnected time on airplanes too!) If one airline becomes known as the “noisy” carrier, consumers longing for silence will stampede to the quiet alternative. Furthermore, airlines may end up charging for access to mobile services the way they do for Wi-Fi—and used to do for the now-defunct GTE Airfone. Fees usually deter usage. In fact, Airfone went belly up because almost no one wanted to pay for it.

With virtually no controversy, dozens of countries throughout the globe have already allowed airlines to have the freedom to control this situation in lieu of government bans on technology. New FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and his fellow commissioners probably had no idea that such sensible, deregulatory and fact-based action would spark such an outcry. Their critics are misinformed. The FCC is doing the right thing: following science, getting out of the way and allowing a free market to do the rest—finally.

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