Only a small man would pick on the Oakton Sun Gazette, but I can’t resist. Friday’s editorial attacks proposals to legalize cell phone use on planes:

This idea – nincompoopery at its finest – needs to be smothered in its infancy, even if the data show that cell phones don’t interfere with an aircraft’s navigational equipment.

How could it not matter if the central argument for a policy is false? (A little googling reveals some conflict of expert opinion, but the consensus appears to be that the risk is miniscule. See also here).

So what’s the Sun Gazette’s argument for retaining the ban, science or no science?

It’s not the interference with the electronic equipment that passengers should worry about, rather the interference in their personal space.

What could be worse than being trapped in your seat next to an obnoxious fellow passenger, you ask? Why, being trapped in your seat next to an obnoxious fellow passenger who is yammering away about nothing on his or her phone.

Such an unpleasant environment is sure to force even more people to forget about air travel, putting the entire tottering industry at further risk of collapse.

It’s unfortunate that all the business sense in the aviation industry is concentrated in Oakton’s local paper. Apparently the people who run airlines are so stupid that they would go bankrupt before they figured this out.

Sarcasm aside, there is plainly a trade-off. Some people want to use cell phones on planes, others don’t want to be around people using them. Personally, I’d like to use mine. I get bored on planes and would like to call all my long-lost friends and catch up while I’ve got nothing better to do. But in any case, airlines have to balance the extra revenue they get from relaxing the rule against the revenue they lose.

Yes, a poll finds that most people want to keep the cell phone ban. Even if that’s the whole truth, it no more implies that a cell phone ban makes business sense than the preponderence of non-smokers implies that a smoking ban makes business sense. In both cases, preference intensities differ; and even if they did not, the patronage of the minority can sustain a large market niche.

Furthermore, current opinion probably suffers from a large status quo bias. It wouldn’t take long before people started to enjoy the freedom to use their phones, and quit fretting so much about other people using theirs. That’s my guess, anyway.

The important thing is that repealing the existing regulation would give airlines a chance to experiment. If the science behind the cell phone ban is wrong, the current rule can’t even hide behind the fig leaf of safety. And who knows, maybe a genius who doesn’t write for the Oakton Sun Gazette would figure out a way to make both phoners and non-phoners happy. At risk of giving away a billion-dollar idea for free: How about No-Phoning Sections on planes?