Yesterday the FCC closed its
proposed rule making procedure pertaining to the use of cellular phones during
air travel. The FCC decided to uphold the ban on in-flight cell phone use, citing a lack of technical evidence that in-flight cell phone use
would not interfere with regular cell phone transmissions. There was no mention
in the brief decision of the thousands of public complaints about the potential
annoyance caused by the use of cell phones on planes. More than 8,000 comments
were filed during the public comment period.
I assume that the cell phone and
airline industries are deploying a small army of engineers right now to prove that
in-flight use does not interfere with on-the-ground cell phone use. So we’ll see this issue pop up again real soon.
Meanwhile, plans are moving forward to offer wifi to air travellers, which combined with VOIP, will bring the in-flight phone conversations issue to the forefront anyway. How we navigate this potential collision of the individual right to communicate to the group’s right to peace and quiet is really a cultural issue much more than a technical one.
In-flight wireless internet service is already provided to many travellers in Europe and the Middle
East. It is unclear whether or not US airlines will impose restrictions on people’s use
of in-flight VOIP or other potentially disruptive computer use. I’m personally looking forward to blogging, Second
Life-ing and discussion board surfing while flying across the US and
abroad. That makes even a 14-hour flight to the Philippines seem appealing.
Regarding in-flight phone use, I think that there are probably ways to
accommodate the cell phone and airline industries desire to implement
this service with passengers’ needs for relative peace and quiet. For
example, restricting this service to business and first class. Or
creating cell-phone use sections of the plane that were sound proofed
from the rest of the plane. Or restricting it to the first and last 45
minutes of every flight.
In the end, I don’t think we can avoid the introduction of these
technologies into air travel, any more than we can keep them from buses
or trains or other public spaces. In lots of parts of Asia, there are
strong social mores about the use of cell phones in public
transportation. You see salarymen on the Tokyo metro holding their
hands over their mouths as they whisper into their cell phones.
US, where we lack this kind of firm social contract, we’ll need
something more structured and enforceable. We will just have to come
up with reasonable rules that balance the group’s right to not be
disturbed with the individual’s desire to communicate.
Sadly, we may need to have some incidents of "flight rage" before this gets treated seriously by the industry and the FAA.