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Editorial: Let airlines decide on cellphone use

A passenger talks on his phone while an

A passenger talks on his phone while an airplane sits motionless on the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Credit: AP, 2010

As if bawling babies, sardine-tin seating and jammed overhead bins aren't enough, modern air travel may soon include the joys of incessant, inane prattle of passengers on cellphones.

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to change its rules to clear the way for airlines to allow fliers to talk on cellphones above 10,000 feet. If there's no safety or technical reason to continue the ban, then the FCC should end it. But air carriers should tread carefully in deciding whether to allow cell conversations; the public opposes them 2 to 1, according to recent polling.

Air travelers already can use Wi-Fi devices above 10,000 feet to surf, text and check e-mail. And in October the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on tablets, e-readers and smartphones used in airplane mode during takeoffs and landings to read, play games, watch movies or listen to music.

Voice calls are the final frontier. They've been banned because phones trying to connect to cell towers on the ground while hurtling through the sky could strain cellular networks and interfere with terrestrial transmissions. Technology on planes to prevent interference is in use in other countries. So there may be no reason to continue the ban.

If it's lifted, the Federal Aviation Administration could decide to continue banning calls. If not, then airlines would be freed to decide whether to allow them. That's the right approach. Air carriers should try various approaches and let consumers decide which they prefer. Some could allow unrestricted voice calls. Others might limit calls to 30 minutes before landing, or after announcements of flight delays, so fliers could call people meeting the flight. Segregated seating (chatterboxes in back, please) is another possibility. So is banning all calls.

Any carrier that green-lights calls should offer noise-canceling headphones for fliers looking to escape the din. If not, there's a market solution for that, too. "Psst . . . headphones! Getcher headphones here!"