Yes, we all hate the FCC’s proposal to allow cell phones in flight, but the FCC is not to blame.

The FCC’s release of its “tentative agenda” before each monthly meeting draws close scrutiny from people like us, but not much from the larger world outside the Beltway.

Until, that is, this week.  That’s when the December agenda appeared, with this item:

Increasing Consumer Access to In-Flight Mobile Wireless Services:  The Commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to revise outdated rules and provide airlines with the ability to permit passengers to use mobile wireless services via onboard airborne access systems.

 The FCC confirmed that, yes, it will formally propose removing its ban on in-flight cell-phone use.

The public reacted vehemently. Who says Americans are apathetic? The 24 hours after the agenda item appeared saw intense press, TV, and online coverage. Website commenters were outraged – even more than usual. Flight attendants were up in arms. A White House petition is gaining hundreds of signatures by the hour. The FCC has not said, but we’re betting their in-box is piling up angry messages.

In fact, we can’t think of another time when an FCC action (or, in this case, an announcement of a coming proposal to maybe take a possible future action) has triggered such a strong public outcry.

We would join the outcry, too, except that we have an inside fact: the FCC is the wrong target.

In-flight serenity is not among its responsibilities. When it comes to air travel, the FCC’s job is to keep the airwaves working. Period. The impact of that work on peace and quiet in the aircraft is simply not their problem.

Back at the dawn of the cellular age, the FCC banned airborne phone calls for a purely technical reason: a cell phone operating at high altitude lights up cell towers over a wide area, and thus hampers service for a lot of people on the ground.

A technical fix has been available for about ten years. It consists of installing a tiny base station aboard each aircraft. The base station aggregates communications from all the phones on the plane and connects them to the carriers’ networks over a satellite link or dedicated terrestrial facilities. Because the phones on the plane are all close to the base station, they automatically dial back their power to the point where they are undetectable from the ground.

With the technical threat to cellular communications no longer a factor, the FCC is simply doing its job (albeit about ten years late) by proposing to remove a rule whose reason for being no longer exists.

Those concerned about someone jabbering at length in the next seat should be talking not to the FCC, but to the FAA and the airlines, although the FAA may not be able help, either. Its primary missions are air safety and efficiency. Unless the flight attendants can persuade the FAA that cell phones present a safety hazard (as from passengers coming to blows in the aisles), the FAA may likewise disclaim jurisdiction. 

That will leave it up to the individual airlines. The FCC’s Q&A on the subject says, repeatedly, “Ultimately, if the FCC adopts new rules, it will be the airlines’ decision, in consultation with their customers whether to permit the use of data, text and/or voice services while airborne.”  A follow-up statement from the FCC chairman says (literally) the same thing.

Possibly some airlines will institute cell-phone and non-cell-phone seating sections, sort of a “quiet car” in the sky. As if choosing a seat (and figuring out the extra fees) isn’t already complicated enough. No doubt the airlines will take a percentage of the on-board cell phone charges. Will they also charge extra fees for a quiet seat somewhere else on the plane?

The only other body having the power to fix the problem is Congress, although it may not be able to find the time in its busy schedule of partisan bickering. Unfortunately some of the congresspersons we know are likely to be among the worst and loudest offenders, and to have the least regard for the discomfort they inflict on others.

Before you ask: sorry, but cell phone jammers are illegal on airplanes, too, just like they are on the bus. Earplugs might help.