Law and Liberty at 30,000 Feet

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Cell phones on airplanes frighten a lot of people and not for safety reasons. Few people want to listen to a seatmate discuss his cat’s health or other trivia for hours. As someone who flies a good deal and values a trip in the clouds for wispy and random reflection, I deeply sympathize. But as a friend of liberty, I oppose a law to ban phone calls on planes.  Private ordering can better determine when and where passengers may make calls in the air.

In the same week in December that the FCC voted to consider lifting its ban on cell phones for airplanes, members of Congress introduced legislation to ban calls, regardless of an inquiry into their safety.  This position allows our representatives to pose as tribunes of the people’s ear. But left to their own devices, airlines have an interest in maximizing revenue by satisfying both cell phone users and devotees of peaceful glide time.

First, some airlines might permit cell phone uses and others not, giving customers a choice. Southwest, for instance, has said it will not allow phone service, regardless of its legality. Second, airlines could have quiet sections where no cell phone is permitted and sections where travelers can connect with the world outside. Even the government monopoly of Amtrak offers inspiration here with its quiet cars in several sections of the nation.

Third, airlines could use surcharges to limit phone use to those most willing to pay for it, thus preserving relative tranquility while satisfying those who really need to make calls. Unbundling communication and transportation services in this way could even lower prices for passengers who do not use their phones, continuing the process of deregulation that has helped reduce basic ticket prices by 50 percent in the past thirty years.  Fourth, the prospect of airline phone use will encourage innovation that could help people makes calls without disturbing surrounding passengers. Many of us baby boomers remember the cone of silence! The jokes of our childhood can point to the inventions of tomorrow.

And social norms will surely come into play. On the commuter trains I rarely hear people speaking on the phone for any length of time. We tend to imagine an unknown future without norms, but when the future arrives there is much order without law.

A government ban on a human activity without real danger to health or safety forecloses possibilities to our detriment. But freedom allows experimentation and innovation to expand horizons no less than does travel itself.