Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Cell phones on planes? For texting, not gabbing

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
January 6, 2013 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT