. . . Advocates of one-size-fits-all centralized regulation often implicitly assume that the only alternative is a chaotic free-for-all (in this case, no restrictions on airborne cell phone use of any kind). In reality, market competition and social norms often impose important constraints of their own, while simultaneously giving consumers greater freedom of choice than they would be allowed under a command and control regulation. Most importantly, firms can adopt varying rules in order to cater to consumers with diverse preferences. That doesn’t prove that all regulation is unjustified. But it is an important factor to consider in debates over the appropriate scope of government intervention in various markets.
Professor Somin notes this post from fellow law professor John McGinnis, which gives the following entirely reasonable assurances to those who think that allowing cell phones on planes means turning airline trips into nightmares:
First, some airlines might permit cell phone uses and others not, giving customers a choice. Southwest, for instance, has said it will not allow phone service, regardless of its legality. Second, airlines could have quiet sections where no cell phone is permitted and sections where travelers can connect with the world outside. Even the government monopoly of Amtrak offers inspiration here with its quiet cars in several sections of the nation.
Third, airlines could use surcharges to limit phone use to those most willing to pay for it, thus preserving relative tranquility while satisfying those who really need to make calls. Unbundling communication and transportation services in this way could even lower prices for passengers who do not use their phones, continuing the process of deregulation that has helped reduce basic ticket prices by 50 percent in the past thirty years. Fourth, the prospect of airline phone use will encourage innovation that could help people makes calls without disturbing surrounding passengers. Many of us baby boomers remember the cone of silence! The jokes of our childhood can point to the inventions of tomorrow.
And social norms will surely come into play. On the commuter trains I rarely hear people speaking on the phone for any length of time. We tend to imagine an unknown future without norms, but when the future arrives there is much order without law.
As long as the use of cell phones does not interfere with the functions of the plane–and there is increasing evidence to indicate that it does not–I have no problem with allowing cell phones to be used on planes. And frankly, I see no reason why anyone else should have a problem with it either. As Professor McGinnis notes, we already see cell phones used on trains and trains accommodate the use by having quiet sections and sections were cell phone conversation is allowed. Indeed, on elevated trains here in the Chicagoland area, there is no quiet car, and yet, a Lord of the Flies atmosphere has not transpired because of the use of cell phones on trains. What makes anyone think that planes would be any different, especially if planes do feature quiet sections where passengers who do not want to be bothered with cell phone conversations can sit?