Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Cell phones on planes? For texting, not gabbing

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:15 AM EST, Sun January 6, 2013
Bob Greene: it makes sense that FAA considering more electronic gadget use on planes. But talking on phones? Keep the ban.
Bob Greene: it makes sense that FAA considering more electronic gadget use on planes. But talking on phones? Keep the ban.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: FAA looks at letting passengers use gadgets on takeoff, landing
  • He says the more texting, e-mailing and surfing are allowed, the better
  • Cell phone calls are the opposite, though: They raise anxiety
  • Greene: Are we that unwilling to disconnect from our gadgets for a few minutes?

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- Let's say that you're the Federal Aviation Administration.

(Unlikely, granted. But, just for the purpose of this exercise, try to envision yourself as a government agency).

You're about to make a decision that will affect millions of travelers. Your decision may please them or it may infuriate them. Most of them have no idea right now that you're contemplating the decision, but as soon as you make it, all of them will become aware, and they will respond, likely in a visceral manner.

You're the FAA. What do you do?

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

What the real FAA is pondering concerns expanding the permitted use of tablets, personal communication devices and other electronic gadgets on commercial flights.

Last month, The Hill reported, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski wrote in a letter to FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta:

"I write to urge the FAA to enable greater use of tablets, e-readers, and other portable electronic devices during flight, consistent with public safety ... mobile devices are increasingly interwoven in our daily lives. They empower people to stay informed and connected with friends and family, and they enable both large and small businesses to be more productive and efficient, helping drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



For many years, passengers have been told that some electronic devices, including cell phones, can interfere with aircraft navigation and communication signals. But as technology advances, ways around this are being developed. Many airlines already sell in-flight Wi-Fi connections for laptop computers and tablets, so the logical next step would be to allow airborne passengers to use their cell phones to connect to the world below.

A few thoughts:

In terms of written communication from passengers on the plane to people down below -- e-mail, text messages sent from cell phones, social network posts -- the more the better. Anything the digital traffic will bear.

If you've been on flights with Wi-Fi enabled, you may have noticed that the passengers using it seem to be contented, almost docile -- the tension level seems to have been lowered. Like it or not, we've become hooked on being constantly connected, and passengers who are able to maintain that connection while six miles in the air appear to be traveling in a state of something close to silent, electronically-sated, tunnel-vision bliss.

But there should be one exception to this:

Technical and connectivity issues aside, the FAA and FCC should never extend their digital-era permission slip to voice calls on cell phones.

The result of allowing phone calls in the air would produce the opposite of the tranquilizing effect of permitting other forms of electronic communication. The anger level of travelers who become incensed by the yammering in the next seat would rise to the level of a public safety concern. Passengers would be demanding to be moved, would ask flight attendants to referee disputes, would probably engage in fistfights. Allowing jousting matches or bullfights in airplane aisles wouldn't be much more disruptive than allowing voice calls on planes.

(But what about the idea of passengers voluntarily exercising restraint and courtesy in those close quarters, limiting the length and loudness of their calls out of respect for their fellow citizens? All right, stop laughing and rolling around on the floor -- get up. This is the United States in the 21st century. We know that voluntary phone courtesy is not going to happen).

You may recall Airfone, the air-to-ground pay phone service that debuted on commercial flights in the 1980s. It required a credit card for each call, and was expensive -- $7.50 in '80s dollars for the first three minutes, when the service was introduced. It never become all that popular, and eventually it faded away.

But that was before the advent of personal cell phones. Talking on the phone anywhere, at any time, is today seen not as an exotic and costly luxury but as an entitlement. The FAA is reportedly not considering voice-call permission on flights; if and when that day comes, walking across the country may feel like a more palatable option than flying.

There's one decision the FAA is evaluating that probably says more about us than it does about in-flight safety:

Those two brief stretches of time when all electronic devices must be turned off -- after the doors to the plane close until it is at cruising altitude, and then again on approach for landing -- are being questioned.

If it can be determined that signals do not interfere with the pilots' transmissions, should passengers now be allowed to use their electronic gadgets even in those few minutes? Some contend that, in those crucial parts of a flight, passengers should not be distracted, and should be alert to instructions from the cabin crew. But reading a magazine or a book can lure a passenger's attention from the crew, and those are not prohibited.

So the question would seem to be:

Has the addiction to the gadgets become so powerful that we are unwilling to disconnect and look away even for that paltry handful of minutes? Has the agitation from withdrawal gotten to that level? Because if it has, then this is an issue considerably more profound and far-reaching than anything having to do with the rules of travel.

Regardless of what the FAA decides, there is one option for in-flight diversion that will still be available, something ancient kings and monarchs could only dream of:

Looking out the window, high above the clouds.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT