Let the debate begin over the new proposal that talking on your mobile phone during a flight is OK.
But let's make sure it is the right debate.
So far, most commentary over the Federal Communications Commission's proposal to allow in-flight cell phone use, on the heels of allowing usage of tablets and laptops during takeoffs and landings, has surrounded whether we really want to sit next to a person in the middle seat recounting every last detail of their bachelorette party the night before.
But forget the noise over the noise itself. The issue should be about regulations, and, more specifically, whether the cell phone and tablet bans should ever have been imposed in the first place.
Some regulations are simply baseless and useless. Yes, the rhetoric around them is about “protecting” people and “safety,” but these are just words. No one can argue against trying to save people's lives, so when regulators come along and decree that something could be harmful to you, they slap on a new rule and we have to accept it.
Lost is that regulators never had any data to suggest that cell phone use in flight was in any way a danger to passengers. There was a theory that phones and Blackberries in particular could interfere with instrumentation, but it was only a guess. Pilots were not saying planes were in danger because someone was yacking to grandma in Akron. And, guess what? Many people never even turned off their phones or devices in flight. How many of us sneaked a peek at our Crackberry in midair in the hope that somehow, somewhere, we got enough of a signal to let a few emails through? I certainly did. It was Blackberry itself that crashed and burned, not an airplane.
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There were economic reasons for not allowing personal cell phones: Airlines were offering phone service, for a fee. It wasn't as lucrative as, say, charging for DirecTV for movies or asking folks to pony up ten bucks for an icy ham sandwich that was the size of a pebble, but phone service was still a revenue stream. The airlines didn't want the competition.
Still, the most galling rule wasn't about in-flight phone use. Rather, it was ban on using tablets and laptops during takeoffs and landings. Again, there was no data to suggest that tapping away on your iPad was going to force the unlikely event of a water landing. But the Federal Aviation Administration said not yet, so we have been forced to stow these in our seat pockets until the pilot let us play Candy Crush again. It always seemed the cruelest rule, since it is precisely the takeoff and landing where we actually think about crashing. When distractions are most welcome, they were forcibly prevented.
Yet, the FAA knew all along iPads were safe. In fact, last year, the agency let American Airlines replace flight manuals – you know, the ones so heavy that pilots actually needed a roller bag to schlep them – with tablets. Earlier this year, American became the first airline to go all tablet, in a move that actually saved them money because the weight of the plane was reduced.
At some point, couldn't the FAA have decided that something safe in the cockpit can also be safe back in economy class? After all, the cockpit is where all those crazy instruments are, the ones that our devices were screwing up.
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It is perhaps unfair to pick on the FAA, because regulations are promulgated at a pace of one every 2 1/2 hours. (Ryan Young over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute does some great research in this area.) One can argue that the majority are unnecessary, and driven more by political reasons than interests of safety.
Also, the regulations can conflict. Take saccharin, perhaps the most famous victim of shoddy science and regulation. The stuff that makes our Sweet 'N Low taste sweet and make us pretend we are getting thin by using it was regulated heavily by the Food & Drug Administration and the state of California, with warnings that it could cause cancer. By 2000, after real science was applied, warning labels for saccharin were dropped, but it took another 10 years for it to get a more complete regulatory OK because the Environmental Protection Agency considered it hazardous waste. So you could dump it in your Sanka but you couldn't put it in your yard without being considered a polluter. In retrospect, saccharin never should have been put through the regulatory ringer. Are we somehow less safe now that it isn't?
Smart business leaders know there is room for some regulation. Safety, after all, is a selling point, and third-party verification is often helpful in informing customers than new products or technologies won't kill them. But regulations don't have to be as burdensome as they are. Common sense should have told anyone who used a phone or flew a plane that the danger wasn't there, so no one had to be inconvenienced.
Instead, regulators simply phoned in their opinions. It is refreshing that they have reversed themselves.