In Search of an Academic Argument Against Onboard Cell Phones

Tyler Cowen doesn’t want to see cell phone use on planes. He has a strong opinion and is looking for academic arguments to support it:

    Can I claim that cell phone calls are a socially wasteful means of signaling to your spouse that you care? Can I claim that commercial airplanes are modern (short-term) monasteries, and that markets undersupply such temples of silence?

Phone use is actually allowed onboard planes now — the phone is in the seatback and the cost is several dollars per minute. The change is making low cost calls available via personal cell phones. Tyler would presumably tax that useage substantially in order to maintain existing cost levels which prevent would-be phone users from invading his silence.

I think Tyler is incorrect if he’s imagining people on cell phones yammering on around him on planes with current seating configurations once regulations change.

Tyler’s dislike of cell phone calls around him is widely shared. He doesn’t believe Bryan Caplan that the market will successfully address the problem. And there might be a short transition period where Tyler’s nightmare scenario is real.

I don’t envision some enterprising airline voluntarily enforcing no cell phone useage and attempting to get people to book away from other carriers in order to gain peace. Travelers articulate desires for quiet, for better food, for non-stop flights but in their booking decisions they don’t pay for those things. I don’t imagine a ‘quiet plane’ business model would be successful.

More likely, one airline will slightly innovate and others will get in line, just like JetBlue adding satellite TV to its planes and Delta recognizing that its lowfare unit needed entertainment as well — meaning that its Song subsidiary offered more amenities than its mainline counterpart. Lowfare carrier Airtran then recognized the need to invest in entertainment, and brought XM Satellite Radio onboard.

Before the FAA banned smoking onboard US planes, airlines used to offer smoking and non-smoking sections. I don’t see why cell phone and non-cell phone sections wouldn’t arise. Amtrak currently offers ‘quiet cars’ along the Northeast corridor for folks who want their monastic peace. Certainly airlines, while not known as the most flexible business entities, can be as innovative as Amtrak.

In an environment where planes are often quite full, passengers may not have the option of assigned seating in the quiet section of the plane. So the non-smoking section model isn’t a panacea.

Technology can help here as well. Tyler can internalize his desire for a quiet plane by purchasing a noise-reduction headset ($40 – $300).

Many airlines give these out now to business and first class passengers on international flights (and sometimes on international-configured planes flying domestically).

A small investment can bring Tyler his peace and quiet, instead of relying on government or airline rules to subsidize his preference. This would carry the benefit of unbundling transportation from comfort, and Tyler could choose to purchase each separately if his effective demand really mirrors his notional demand.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If you have Verizon cell service, you can set up your account so Airphone calls are only 69 cents per minute. Much better than the usual credit card rate.

    One thing I don’t want to see on planes is allowing Nextel walkie-talkie mode. I don’t want to be captive on a plane listening to that damn chirp.

    I was stuck on a train a couple weeks ago across from someone chirping away for over an hour. The most annoying thing was that it was after 9 PM, so a regular call would have been free anyway.

  2. I used to ride the Metro North train from NYC to GReenwich CT and back for work every day for at least 6 months. While you are in it certainly feels like a plane, and i can say that few if any people ever yammered away on their phones, and if they did, they got up and stood near a doorway away from seats to do it.

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