Bryan Caplan  

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Only a small man would pick on the Oakton Sun Gazette, but I can't resist. Friday's editorial attacks proposals to legalize cell phone use on planes:

This idea – nincompoopery at its finest – needs to be smothered in its infancy, even if the data show that cell phones don’t interfere with an aircraft’s navigational equipment.

How could it not matter if the central argument for a policy is false? (A little googling reveals some conflict of expert opinion, but the consensus appears to be that the risk is miniscule. See also here).

So what's the Sun Gazette's argument for retaining the ban, science or no science?


It’s not the interference with the electronic equipment that passengers should worry about, rather the interference in their personal space.

What could be worse than being trapped in your seat next to an obnoxious fellow passenger, you ask? Why, being trapped in your seat next to an obnoxious fellow passenger who is yammering away about nothing on his or her phone.

Such an unpleasant environment is sure to force even more people to forget about air travel, putting the entire tottering industry at further risk of collapse.

It's unfortunate that all the business sense in the aviation industry is concentrated in Oakton's local paper. Apparently the people who run airlines are so stupid that they would go bankrupt before they figured this out.

Sarcasm aside, there is plainly a trade-off. Some people want to use cell phones on planes, others don't want to be around people using them. Personally, I'd like to use mine. I get bored on planes and would like to call all my long-lost friends and catch up while I've got nothing better to do. But in any case, airlines have to balance the extra revenue they get from relaxing the rule against the revenue they lose.

Yes, a poll finds that most people want to keep the cell phone ban. Even if that's the whole truth, it no more implies that a cell phone ban makes business sense than the preponderence of non-smokers implies that a smoking ban makes business sense. In both cases, preference intensities differ; and even if they did not, the patronage of the minority can sustain a large market niche.

Furthermore, current opinion probably suffers from a large status quo bias. It wouldn't take long before people started to enjoy the freedom to use their phones, and quit fretting so much about other people using theirs. That's my guess, anyway.

The important thing is that repealing the existing regulation would give airlines a chance to experiment. If the science behind the cell phone ban is wrong, the current rule can't even hide behind the fig leaf of safety. And who knows, maybe a genius who doesn't write for the Oakton Sun Gazette would figure out a way to make both phoners and non-phoners happy. At risk of giving away a billion-dollar idea for free: How about No-Phoning Sections on planes?


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/244
The author at William J. Polley in a related article titled Caplan and Cowen on cell phones in the air writes:
    In EconLog, Bryan Caplan writes about the proposed repeal of the cell phone ban aboard airplanes: The important thing is that repealing the existing regulation would give airlines a chance to experiment. If the science behind the cell phone ban... [Tracked on April 27, 2005 2:28 AM]
COMMENTS (34 to date)
Bernard Yomtov writes:

How about No-Phoning Sections on planes?

OK. Let's have a Phoning Section in rows 1-13, No Phoning in rows 14-end. Who wants to sit in row 14 (or 15 or 16 or..) and listen to a bunch of blowhards calling their offices to check for messages and report that the "meeting went great, BS, BS," etc.

Nobody. That's who.

If you're bored on the airplane read a book, preferably one not written by Ayn Rand. You might learn something about the world. Of course, if there are a bunch of people two or three rows away jabbering on cell phones it might be hard to concentrate on your reading, but anything's better than making them wait until the plane lands, right?

Or here's a Coasian solution, if you like. Want to talk on your cell phone? Fine. Pay $25/minute, to be divided among the passengers who don't talk on their cell phones. If it's not important enough to pay $25/minute for, then shut up.

Jim Erlandson writes:
Apparently the people who run airlines are so stupid that they would go bankrupt before they figured this out.
Many are bankrupt already. Stupidity is optional.

Cell phone use on aircraft is prohibited by the FCC -- not the FAA.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, for another, prohibits cell phones at 35,000 feet from broadcasting their signals to several towers on the ground at once and thus slowing down the entire network.

There are technical solutions to this but they require that the airline to install a "mini cell" on the plane and relay the signals to ground over a proprietary network. Making it possible to charge for the service.

Fazal Majid writes:

One flawed assumption in your argument is that someone's preference for using a cell phone does not necessarily mean they are more likely to accept others talking. Morally inconsistent and selfish to be sure, but such is human nature. If everybody is speaking on a cell phone at the same time, pretty much none of them can get heard over the din.

Paul Zrimsek writes:

The Virtue of Selfishness might not be my first choice for airborne reading but I'd pick it over The Virtue of Petty Resentment any day.

Scott Scheule writes:

"...I'd pick it over The Virtue of Petty Resentment any day."

Not familiar with that one... Krugman?

Brad Hutchings writes:

Dear Brian,

Get an iPod. It makes a 2 hour flight go really fast.

superdestroyer writes:

If you haven't noticed, airlines require the use of headphones to listen to music or a DVD player. Why should the airlines allow one set of technology to impose on others while not allow others. If you want to talk on your cell phone, then I guess you would not mind if I play 50 Cent on my boom box for two hours so that I do not become bored.

rjw writes:

I go for the notion of having phone and non-phone section (with suitable noise barriers between). A colleague tells me that German railways already have non-phone and phone wagons on their trains.

Carodozo Bozo writes:

I seen what one loud cellphone user can do to a 20-40 minute train ride commuting out of New York: fists were involved. They're banned on the bus for the same reason: homicidal rage. Hearing only one half of a loud conversation is proven to drive people nuts (Brian, keep this in mind before yammering, or your phone might get fed to you. I'm not kidding).

I'm all for being honest about why they're banned, but not for lifting it. How many people have to get extra "utility" from using their phone to pay for all of the aggression and aggravation they cause? As SuperDestroyer said, what goes for DVD and MP3 players should go for the phone. Their use should be limited to checking voice-mail.

Paul Zrimsek writes:
Hearing only one half of a loud conversation is proven to drive people nuts...

Evidently a pretty short drive for some people.

Timothy writes:

People on phones are no more annoying that the following things, all of which are already allowed on planes:

*Children with portable video games
*Children kicking the back of your seat
*Children roaming the aisle
*Chldren crying
*Babies crying
*The snoring fat guy taking up the arm rest
*Smelly baby diapers during takeoff/landing
*Children, generally
*The drunken business traveller
*The talkative old lady next to you
*Flight Attendants

In fact, I'd rather listen intently to some inane cell-phone conversation than try to read while some idgit in the next seat asks, "So, do you like Economics?" Why no, I hate it, that's why I'm reading The Economist, because I loathe all things Econ. I can ignore some jerk on his phone by turning my ipod on, but if that same jerk strikes up a conversation before I get the chance, I'm out of luck. Oh, and people, please sedate your gene-spawn before flying with them. Thanks.

Randy writes:

I frequently tailgate people who use their cell phones while driving. I know its unreasonable, but they really pi$$ me off.

I guess if I was sitting next to a cell phone user on a plane, I would elbow them in the ribs, or knee them in the back, until they got the message.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Not a question of petty resentment, Paul. Just a question as to why someone's inability to find a quiet way to deal with boredom entitles them to disturb other people.

Sorry if I sounded snarky, but I've been on trains with cell phone users and it's a royal pain.

And by the way, suppose the risk to navigation is miniscule. Miniscule is not zero. You want to compare the lives of a couple of hundred passengers to the benefits of relieving boredom, or getting to play big shot a couple of hours earlier?

metis314 writes:
Not a question of petty resentment, Paul. Just a question as to why someone's inability to find a quiet way to deal with boredom entitles them to disturb other people.

Sadly, this post seems to have fallen on deaf ears (not limited to the quote above). The point was merely (I believe), if the risk is zero, then why shouldn't companies and consumers be allowed to choose whether or not cell phones are permited. The fact that boredom may prompt the use of the cell phone is not important to the deeper question of why should the government prevent the choice. The consumer who chooses to fly on an airline that allows the use of cell phones is accepting that there may be people talking on cell phones, if they don't like that, then they could fly another airline that doesn't allow cell phones (I'm assuming here a competitive market in which if there is enough demand for a given product/service, it will exist).

For example, airline A lets users use cell phones and B doesn't. If A starts flying empty planes around, it will have to figure out some solutions to the passenger's gripes about other people use of cell phones, or ban cell phones on their flights too. There is nothing wrong with A choosing to ban the cell phone use because the consumers choose not to embrace it; however, there are many things wrong with the government forcing the choice on the people without a justifyable safety concern -- and that seems to be the issue, as Bryan mentioned the consensus says miniscule risk, but what is that? 1 out of a million? billion?... I know in aerospace design courses we're drilled with the fact that 1 out of a billion reliablity is not good enough.

Personally, I hate cell phones and would fly on the airline that banned them. But I understand that perhaps not all people (maybe not even a majority) feel that way and would in fact find the ability to use their cell phone on the plane usefull.

Finally,

I frequently tailgate people who use their cell phones while driving. I know its unreasonable, but they really pi$$ me off.

In driver's ed. the teacher told a story about how he used to tailgate people that pissed him off until one day the person in front forced him off the road and pulled a gun on him... (This is in Texas)

Randy writes:

Metis,

Good point about cell phones and freedom. The fact that I despise people who haven't the manners to keep their conversations private doesn't mean that I think the freedom to use them should be regulated. I just reserve the right to use my elbows.

And you're right about gun carrying drivers. I guess I should get a gun. Hey, then I wouldn't have to tailgate cell phone drivers - I could just shoot them.

Mark Horn writes:

Re: quiet ways to occupy time.

There is no law nor regulation that forbids talking to the passenger next to you. Nor is there a law or regulation that forbids crying babies on airplanes. Both of these can have varying levels of annoyance, but are fairly well regulated by themselves.

The stated reason for preventing cell phone usage is that it could interfere with flight operations. If that's false, what is the justification for prohibiting inflight cell usage that doesn't also prohibit passenger conversation and crying babies?

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Very well, metis. If the risk is zero, which it isn't, and if the market for flights were competitive, which it often isn't, then I suppose we could let there be cell phone airlines and non-cell airlines. If we could enclose cell phone users in a Get Smart-like cone of silence there would be no problem. But since these conditions don't hold that's a rather abstract notion.

Randy,

It's not a question of despising people. It's a question of why they have the right to make your flight unpleasant. This is an issue of conflict of rights.

Mark Horn,

As for crying babies, passenger conversations, etc., yes they make noise. Is that a justification for adding to the cacophony? We can't get rid of all annoyances, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't get rid of some. It's hard to make a rule to keep babies from crying, and most passenger-to-passenger conversations are conducted at fairly low volume levels. For whatever reason people talk more loudly on cell phones than in these conversations. And loud ones are/b> annoying.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Tyler at marginal revolution said he wished he had a good argument to counter you. There is one: Cellphones make the absolute Best homing devices for Rockets. lgl

Randy writes:

Bernard,

I realize I'm having entirely too much fun with this issue, but what other reason than a conflict of rights is there to despise people?

Paul Zrimsek writes:
You want to compare the lives of a couple of hundred passengers to the benefits of relieving boredom, or getting to play big shot a couple of hours earlier?

What better place than an econ blog? Give me your estimate for epsilon and we'll get to work. Don't forget to multiply the probability of a cell phone causing a nav error by the probability of a nav error, during the non-critical phases of flight where cellular use is allowed now, causing an accident.

engine_us writes:

i don't see the large market niche you mentioned. after all, most (if not all) airplanes have on board phones that passengers can use with a fee. so the gains are not going to be higher than the fees themselves.

on the other hand, i do find Sun Gazette's "interference in their personal space" argument quite compelling.

John P. writes:

I should not have to hear your cell.

Why I shouldn't, I cannot tell.

But this I know and know full well:

I should not have to hear your cell.

(apologies to Dr. Johnson & Martial)

Tom writes:

The question of cell-phone use, if cell phones don't interfere with flight operations, should be airline policy, not regulatory policy. Airlines can experiment to find the right mix of profit-maximization policies. They could, for example, allow cell-phone use on alternate days, or on alternate flights between same-city pairs, or in certain rows -- or in some combination of the preceding. Such policies, if well publicized, should generate a lot of useful data for airlines. Airlines might, for example, find row-segregation to be the best way to maximize profits if they offer discounts to passengers in the non-cell phone rows near the cell-phone section.

Bill writes:

I used to commute by train. There was no one more hated than the jerk conducting business by cell. Generally, we--the majority of commuters--were able to get the jerk off the phone by the threat of violence. Unfortunately, violent behavior on airliners is seriously frowned on by the govt.

Airlines should be allowed to allow cell usage if it does not interfere with the electronic equipment, but I would never fly such an airline.

Uriah Heep writes:

I agree we should have the freedom for cell phone usage- of course then the airlines would also need to allow you a gun to protect yourself from the inevitable phone related brawls...Ahhh, sweet freedom.

Tim Shell writes:

Supposedly planes will eventually be equipped with highspeed internet, so you can surf the web in flight.

What's to stop you from using voice over internet telephony, then? Even if cell phones are banned?

And shouldn't they have outlets in each row so I can plug in my laptop and not rely on battery power for long flights?

dsquared writes:

The stated reason for preventing cell phone usage is that it could interfere with flight operations

As Jim Erlandson noted in the second post on this thread, this ain't true. They are banned on aeroplanes because "the sky" doesn't have a cell, so the phones broadcast to dozens of cells simultaneously, which is a really antisocial way to use the mobile phone network.

Also, have you ever had your phone in your pocket while listening to a radio and heard that "dededeep" noise where the radio picks up your phone signal? Now imagine a Boeing full of those noises, except you're the pilot and they're in your headphones. None of these problems are insoluble and neither of them are really life-threatening, but they're irritating enough to justify a blanket ban based on current technology.

Matt writes:

If cell phone use interferes with the avionics (or even the pilots' radio headphones), as has been alleged, then yes, by all means continue the universal ban. Likewise if it inevitably abuses the cellular spectrum. I am insufficiently competent in the relevant engineering disciplines to comment knowledgeably on whether these conditions are true, and insufficently pompous to comment on their truth without that knowledge.

But to the extent that the universal ban is based on criteria other than those, I can comfortably assert that it is a bad idea.

I am perplexed by some people's apparent belief in a right to impose silence on environments they don't own. From where does this right derive, and how might I go about asserting it against children, talkative grandparents, sports fans, etc? (Which is to say nothing of the elephant in the acoustical living room, the plane's _engines_...)

I can understand and (grudgingly) accept the rationale for smoking bans in some places...like it or not, my smoking does impinge upon your lungs if you're in the room when I do it, and enough people are meaningfully harmed by this without their consent to justify prohibiting it in some places.

But unless you completely ignore the fact that "annoyance" is not the same thing as "harm", I can't see how a case can be made that cell phone convsersations on airplanes are harmful.

Timothy writes:

Matt: It's easy, you're just not trying nearly hard enough to be condescendingly paternal about it.

The day people stop brining their children on airplanes, or out in public more generally, is the day I'll give up using my cellphone in public space. You hate phones, I hate kids, learn to deal with it. I find cringing, eye rolling, and the icy stare to be particularly cathartic, try it.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Looking at Bryan's links, I find that there is not, in fact, a "consensus" that the risk is miniscule. Some people think so, others, includng the UK's CAA (equivalent to the US FAA) do not. Doesn't sound like a consensus to me.

The links also reveal problems less severe than crashes, but still undesirable - planes off-course, an excess of warning signals, etc. They also describe the problem of interference with ground cell service that Jim Erlandson and dsquared mention.

But unless you completely ignore the fact that "annoyance" is not the same thing as "harm", I can't see how a case can be made that cell phone convsersations on airplanes are harmful.

Well, annoyance is a form of harm, as a matter of fact. But if you want to say that they are different then why does being prevented from making a cell call to relieve your boredom qualify as harm, while being prevented from concentrating on my crossword puzzle to relieve mine is only annoyance?

Why do some people claim the right to impose silence on "environments they don't own?" Why do some people claim the right to make noise in an environment they don't own?

As for the engines, let me explain something you seem to have overlooked. They are necessary. The plane won't fly without them, you see, whereas it will fly perfectly well, possibly better, without your cell phone calls.

Mark Horn writes:
Why do some people claim the right to make noise in an environment they don't own?

Babies cry and people talk, and sometimes argue, loudly. People already have the right to make noise on airplanes. What distinguishes making noise into a cell phone from making noise into the air?

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Babies cry and people talk, and sometimes argue, loudly. People already have the right to make noise on airplanes. What distinguishes making noise into a cell phone from making noise into the air?

There's a limit to what we can do about babies. People who talk and argue loudly on airplanes are inconsiderate assholes, in my opinion. Still, it's hard to stop. But you can stop cell calls.

In other words, not every unpleasantness, not every selfish intrusion on others, not every taking of others rights, can be controlled, but those that can should be.

The "right to make noise on airplanes" is not unlimited. To the extent passengers are allowed to exceed reasonable decibel levels, that has more to do with problems of stopping them than with some inherent right to be as loud as one wishes.

Timothy writes:

Ban kids from planes, or require that any passenger under 15 be sedated (benadryl or something works perfectly fine and is perfectly safe). Or force them to wear ball-gags the entire flight. What, that's too draconian? Point is you *can* ban any number of behaviors with sufficient policy.

In principle the phone thing is no different, why do you have a right to bring your obnoxious little gamete pairing on board? Yeah, I put on my iPod and ignore it, but that's hard when it's kicking my chair. And, for some reason, parents get upset when you ask them to keep their little food-to-waste conversion unit in check.

I'm young, I'm single, and I find children to be THE most annoying factor in public spaces. They should be banned for my sake! Punish those louts who have the temerity to bring kids around my oh-so-sensitive space! No, that's stupid, and it's equally stupid to cite annoyance as a reason to ban cellphones. If it's unsafe (which I doubt, as government regulatory agencies are so risk-averse it's silly) fine, have a policy. Otherwise keep policy makers out of it.

Mark Horn writes:
In other words, not every unpleasantness, not every selfish intrusion on others, not every taking of others rights, can be controlled, but those that can should be.
Well, in that case, my personal pet peeve is people who lean back in their chairs in coach class. This is annoying becuase I (with my laptop) can't possibly do any work with the chair leaned back. It's an annoyance. It encroaches on my space, and it can easily be regulated.

But let's not stop there. My son is alergic to wheat. They only serve pretzels on airplanes now. They should be forbidden. It's an annoyance, it is unfair to my son, and it can easily be regulated.

</sarcasm>

My point is this: just because something can be regulated, even if it's an annoyance doesn't justify it actually being regulated. Advocate choice, not policy. With choice, people can self regulate.

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