Something unusual is happening at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). At a meeting earlier this afternoon, the commission—led by Obama-appointed chairman Tom Wheeler—voted to review the FCC ban on using cell phones on airplanes. This is the first step to repeal, which Wheeler supports.
The move has caused bipartisan consternation on Capitol Hill. Representative Bill Shuster (R–PA) has denounced the move, arguing, “For those few hours in the air with 150 other people, it’s just common sense that we all keep our personal lives to ourselves and stay off the phone.” Along with others, such as Senator Lamar Alexander (R–TN), Shuster plans to introduce legislation to enshrine the cell phone ban into law. And, disturbingly, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said his own agency may move ahead with its own regulation.
Wheeler is right to seek an end to this needless rule. No one seriously argues anymore that wireless phones threaten flight safety. Rather, the opposition is based on fears that the relative calm of airline passengers will be shattered by chatterboxes of the air.
It’s an understandable concern, but it’s well out of the FCC’s job description. “I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else,” says Wheeler. “But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission.”
But the problem is not just the FCC’s limited role—no federal agency should be in the business of enforcing courtesy. Where would it end? Why not a rule to keep the guy sitting next to you from detailing his life story to you coast-to-coast? Or ban noxious colognes and perfumes? And why stop at air travel? Boorishness is not limited to the cabin—it’s rampant in restaurants, movie theaters, and sporting events. The fight against cloddishness has no natural boundaries.
Rather than unleash the federal manners police, policymakers should look to the marketplace. If passengers want chat-free cabins, airlines will bar cell phones on their flights. If passengers want to talk freely, airlines will allow that. Perhaps some airlines will market special quiet flights or quiet sections, allowing passengers to travel in peace, while allowing conversations elsewhere. Whatever the answer, it’s a matter for airlines and their customers to decide, not bureaucrats or politicians.
Tom Wheeler should be congratulated for seeing the limits of his own agency and being willing to diminish its purview. It is the type of regulatory rollback that has been all too rare under the Obama Administration. Now only if Congress—and the rest of the Obama Administration—could show similar restraint.