Should The Government Control Whether You Can Make A Phone Call On Your Next Flight?

It’s been almost a year since the FAA officially said it was okay to use electronic devices from gate to gate on flights in the United States.

Late last year, the FCC proposed overturning the ban on in-flight cell phone calls.  At the time, I was strongly opposed to allowing phone calls on planes.

And, I think I’ve changed my mind.  I’m trying to reconcile my philosophical view of the industry and my own personal desire to want to call my kids and say good night when I’m on a plane.  I have yet to go one day away from my kids without calling to say good night.  So, I don’t want the government to take away that ability.

This issue has arisen again because of the recent announcement that the Department of Transportation is wading into the process to try and ban phone calls on the grounds that they have a duty to provide “safe and adequate” transportation for people.

The FCC’s argument?  There’s no technical reason to ban cellphone calls.

The DOT’s argument?  We don’t trust people not to be smart about cellphone calls in the air.

Philosophically, while I don’t think flight attendants will do a good job enforcing proper etiquette as it relates to phone calls on planes, they should.  It’s really not too much to ask that they keep the general peace on board, though I’m sure many would disagree.

I don’t want to fly an airline that doesn’t police proper etiquette for phone calls.  I do want the ability personally to make an important phone call if I need to.  And, that’s what I told a reporter who asked me about it earlier this week:

“I think there’s a fine line between the government legally allowing people to talk on the phone and the airlines doing the same,” said MilePoint cofounder Edward Pizzarello, who blogs about travel at Pizza in Motion.

“I really don’t see why the government should ban calls completely, because I believe there could be good reasons to allow calls in certain circumstances,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“As a business traveler with kids, I’d welcome the opportunity to say a quick ‘good night!’ to my kids when traveling,” he added. “I enjoy those small moments when I’m away; hence the reason I don’t want the government to take that choice out of my hands.”

At the same time, “I’m not sure there’s a strong enough economic reason for airlines to allow phone calls,” Pizzarello acknowledged. “I do think phone calls have the ability to cause stress amongst passengers, especially given that planes are flying with a lot less empty seats and legroom than they used to.”

Still, the same could be said for a passenger watching a movie without headphones, which is nothing if not a common phenomenon, he pointed out.

“Despite the fact that some folks say flight attendants have enough to worry about, I think they’re well-equipped to tell a passenger to talk more quietly just like they might ask them to turn down the volume on their movie,” he added.

Bottom line: “There are definitely reasons to ban phone calls on airplanes,” Pizzarello asserted, “but they’re not necessarily good ones, especially when such things can be managed by the airlines and their employees.

“Some airlines might want to allow it — like Southwest gives free checked bags,” he concluded. “Others might want to advertise that they’re a quiet airline because they don’t allow calls.”

The author didn’t use one of the quotes I gave her.  For those of you who remember the classic movie Die Hard 2 (did I really just call that a classic?) or went to the Austin MegaDO last year, maybe the answer is the telephone booth we see onboard, where Holly tasers the annoying reporter?
Bottom Line It For Me, Ed
I don’t want the government to ban phone calls on planes, especially under the half-hearted horse manure way they’re attempting to do so.
I don’t want someone seated next to me screaming into their phone.
You could almost say I’m coming around to View From The Wing’s recent position.  But I’m not quite there. I don’t want to start having conference calls in the air.  I’m perfectly happy to get work done on my laptop (preferably on a plane with wifi).
But, along with the obvious point that the DOT probably has better things to do, like safer highways.  The mission statement of the DOT is:
Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.
That encompasses a lot.  Go focus on some of those other things.



  1. While I don’t want to take telephone advice from Die Hard 2 — since the pay phones at “Washington Dulles airport” in the movie say “Pacific Bell” — I do think it’s important that if a terrorist cell takes over an airport and threatens to destroy planes that try to land, the ability to use a cell phone seems like it would come in pretty handy! 😛

    Not real life? Though not allowed, several people aboard tragic flights on 9/11 did manage to reach loved ones one last time.

    1. Ah, the pay phone. What a novelty.

      If I were on one of those 9/11 flights (or had a loved one on them) I would have wanted the opportunity for one last call.

    2. Also, while I’d still like to see the government butt out, I wonder if the implementation of this might chew up bandwidth for in-flight wifi. The airlines are innovating so slowly I could see voice calls grinding things to a halt in certain setups.

      1. Probably different tech and different provider, at least that seems to be how it’s done in the MIddle East though I’m not an expert on the technical implementation.

        1. Well, that’s certainly the ideal way to do it. But, that wouldn’t preclude a cheap US carrier from trying some kludged together solution relying on the existing pipe.

  2. Ed, he wasn’t in a “phone booth” but using an Airphone (remember those?) in the lav. If you thought the line for the lav was long now, imagine if the airlines started requiring you to make your calls from in there.

    My problem is that most flight attendants aren’t “well equipped” and won’t do a good enough job policing it from the non-existent policing I see them doing with movies and games now. Further have to police phone callers distracts them from other duties and increases their workload.

    More importantly with in-flight WiFi there are several methods of communicating via email and IM that allow you to handle things without having to make a call, I know I’ve handled critical support issues while flying.

    So to me anyone wanting to make a phone call while closely seated with others is being selfish. If saying goodnight to your kids is that important (and as a father I realize it is) then schedule your flights around that. It’s simply not a good enough reason to open the potential for misuse.

    As to the DOT, to me the potential misuse of cell phones can create an unhealthy cabin environment (form a mental health issue) which is exactly why smoking tobacco products and using e-cigs are banned on flights. Add into that the increased possibility of an air rage incident and I see it absolutely falling into your quoted goal, especially the “quality of life” part.

    1. I remember the airphones, but didn’t/don’t remember cordless ones. And, you’re absolutely right, it was a bathroom.

      I think flight attendants are perfectly capable of managing the process. That’s different than saying they will. I think there are plenty of flight attendants to manage the process on most flights. European flight crews (think Lufthansa) can pull off meal service for 1/3 of the plane and 2 drink services in less than an hour.

      Just my two cents, but I don’t believe there’s really been a big push lately to maximize FA efficiency. There are lots who don’t like their jobs and do them slowly and/or apathetically.

      I understand these jobs don’t pay well but I have plenty of people working for me who make less, work in tougher conditions and still have a smile on their face.

      I don’t personally WANT to make a phone call sitting next to someone but it may be necessary. What happens when my flight is delayed due to an airline-induced problem (MX or otherwise)?

      As an aside, I’d just as soon get up and make the call from the lav if I really had to make one, assuming no line.

      I don’t want a world where people are on the phone next to me on a plane. But, I’m also really not fond of the government stepping in and just saying no.

      I understand your point about tobacco/e-cigs but I believe the real or perceived health risks to be much greater there.

      Maybe I’m waxing too philosophical, but I think the government should butt out and I think FAs should be more accountable.

      Maybe I’ve been sitting next to someone with an e-cig too long! Or, that stuff they sell in Colorado now.

    2. I agree completely with Omatrabel. Well said. I am not interested in listening to others phone conversations and they shouldn’t have to listen to mine. Bona fide emergencies are an entirely different matter.

      1. Patriot546, I’m not saying I want to listen to someone else’s phone conversations, either. But, I don’t think we need our government regulating it. Because then you’ll have the government determining what an emergency is for when you’re allowed to make a phone call, and that wouldn’t be pretty.

  3. The FA’s can’t even keep people from using the wrong lav’s on the plane. People don’t just obey.
    I don’t have a big problem with it but I don’t think its a good idea. Just don’t blame me a few years from now when some loud mouth is keeping half the plane awake on your red eye talking to her BFF about the latest episode of American idol or whatever.
    The problem with “common sense” is that it’s not “common” for everyone.

    1. DaninMCI, I agree that most FAs are about as effective as a screen door on a submarine. But, that’s really an airline problem. They should hire and train better employees. The government already does enough things wrong that I don’t think I want them legislating the friendly skies any more than they currently do. The BFF/American Idol scenario is the one I fear (is American Idol still on TV?) but I think I’m willing to gamble a bit on that rather than trusting the DOT.

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