Cell Phones on Planes: A Defining Issue

The Federal Communications Commission is moving towards allowing the use of cell phones on airplanes. Many of us have known for a long time that their use poses no safety issues (yes the government does sometimes—how shall I say it in a way that will not attract NSA attention—misrepresent things). The FCC’s ruling rests on whether it would be good or nice for us to be able to use them. Whether we want our government to establish rules on what is nice public behavior is one of those issues that help define and reflect differing attitudes toward the desirable (not to mention, because it seems largely irrelevant these days, constitutional) role of government.

As I write this note, it seems that the FCC is moving towards a compromise ruling that would allow the use of phones and other electronic devises (Mac, iPad, etc – yes I am an Apple fan) for internet access to email, text messages, and web surfing but not talking. This strikes me as odd in that it has been possible to do that for some years now. I have used the service (for a fee) to send and receive email on Delta and other planes with the equipment: http://www.gogoair.com/gogo/splash.do. Oh well.

I cringe when people base their views on whether government should control certain behaviors (pot smoking, public profanity, talking lauding in public etc) on whether such behavior is good or bad for the person doing it. For me the test (along with the constitution) is whether my behavior endangers other people. Thus the issue of whether secondary smoke is harmful and if so should be banned in the workplace, for example, is a legitimate public policy concern. The outcome should rest on the facts; is it harmful to third parties or not.

I would not like for people to talk on their cell phones on planes, but am appalled by the idea that the government would not allow airlines to set their own policies in this regard. I don’t like talking on planes in any form. I have not talked to anyone on a plane other than the flight crew for many years. No government ruling caused this or is desired. Somehow I have been able to successfully and without words communicate to anyone next to me that I do not want to talk. My loss, I am sure, but it is fortunately still my choice.

I am reminded of a flight home from a wonderful European vacation with my son, Brandon, years ago. The man and woman behind us were chattering away and their conversation became more and more homophobic. My son finally turned around and said, “Would you please shut up.”  Those lobbying the FCC to forbid phone calls on planes should probably include fines for offensive speech on planes or in other public places (the First Amendment be damned). Those, like me, who prefer a more limited, less intrusive government, prefer to rely on common courtesy as it evolves through private interactions. Perhaps because I am the oldest of my siblings I never liked the idea of a Big Brother.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 2003 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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2 Responses to Cell Phones on Planes: A Defining Issue

  1. jim roumasset says:

    I suspect that most airlines don’t want to encourage talking on cell phones but are afraid that some competitors would allow it. So they lobbied the FCC to ban using cells for talking.

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