Cell Phones on Airliners?

The FAA recently decided, tentatively, that cell phone use would be OK on commercial airplanes. But forthwith, moans went up from near and far and the FAA backed off. Lots of travelers understandably dread the prospect of captivity to loud conversations by boors seated inches away from them. It’s unclear at this time what the final decision will be.

Why does it never occur to anyone to let the owners of the airplanes decide this issue? They could experiment with various policies ranging from outright bans to unlimited use with all sorts of possibilities in between. Following Amtrak and some commuter railroads that have quiet cars, they could establish a no-talk section of the airplane like the non-smoking sections of yore. Or they could try pleading with talkers. Soon enough they will discover what their customers want and competitive pressures would force all airlines to fall into line.

That sort competitive experimentation works quite well in many market segments, as a moment’s reflection will confirm. So why do we hear nothing about this simple solution for the cell phone problem? Part of the answer, I fear, is that so many people are resigned to letting bureaucrats set the rules for practically all of life. An extreme example of this attitude is the kind of message that appears in my spam folder with a subject like “Obama lowers re-fi rates.” Of course this is nonsense but it suggests that a good many people think Obama has the power to set re-fi rates and worse: that it’s perfectly OK for him to wield such dictatorial powers.

Back to cell phones on airplanes: the whole issue came about as a result of determinations by the FAA technical staff that cell phone signals don’t really interfere with airplane communications as had been feared. That suggests a more difficult question: suppose there were credible evidence that cell phone use really was a threat to airplane communications. Should the FAA be empowered to ban cell phone use? I suggest that it does not. The airlines have an enormous incentive to avoid interference problems. If they were free to make their own decisions about this (again, assuming there was credible evidence of a real problem), their lawyers would be all over them about instituting their own prohibitions. The owners of the control towers (I’m envisioning a privatized FAA) would have strong incentives as well. Many passengers would be aware of the issue and would press for bans.

We have here another example of what a tough job we face, those of us who advocate free markets. The general public, Mencken’s “booboisie” if you will, hasn’t the mental horsepower to envision even modest deviations from the command and control paradigm that is smothering our society.

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