Can we talk? The cellphone debate at 35,000 feet

To Kevin Mitchell, allowing people to use cellphones in airplanes would "create insanity up there," with passengers jabbering away while their aisle mates sit helplessly by.

But Greeley Koch counters it wouldn't be that bad. In fact, he thinks it would create a boon for business, producing millions of dollars for the economy as those hours spent flying are suddenly made more productive.

The stands of these men, who both head up corporate travel organizations, show just how controversial the prospect of cellphone use in the air has become.

Now, that prospect is becoming closer to reality, creating one of the biggest stirs since restaurants became no-smoking zones. The Federal Communications Commission has already signaled its willingness to lift the restrictions that it put in place in 1991 because new technology ensures that chatting at 35,000 feet won't interfere with cellphone service on the ground.

But the Federal Aviation Administration is more reluctant. During congressional hearings last week, FAA officials stated that while they'd keep their ban, they would also consider requests to lift it on a case-by-case basis if the airlines can prove that doing so won't interfere with navigational systems or avionics. A study due out late next year will address that issue, but it's expected to find no problems.

The possibility that airlines may soon be cleared for cellphone use has raised alarms with security officials, flight attendants, and many of the flying public. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have both warned that terrorists could use cellphones to coordinate attacks with people on the ground, in other planes, or even in different parts of the same plane. So if routine cellphone use is allowed, officials want the ability to record and track all airborne calls, down to the caller's seat number. That, in turn, has raised concerns among privacy advocates, who say that the government shouldn't be keeping records of private calls.

Bracing for air rage

But few groups are more opposed to allowing cellphone use than the airlines' own front-line personnel. Flight attendants are concerned not only about terrorists, but also about passengers' air rage if they're forced to sit and listen to someone else chatter for three or four hours.

"We'd have to deal with all the situations that could arrive from that, the disruptions that could escalate to where there are physical ramifications," says Candace Kolander, a flight attendant and coordinator of air safety, health, and security for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington. "So while the technology may be available to make it possible, there are some environments, like an aircraft cabin, where cellphone use is just not appropriate."

Much of the public appears to agree. A survey done for the AFA found that 63 percent of the flying public does not want the cellphone ban lifted. If the government and airlines go ahead and allow cellphone use anyway, 70 percent would want a separate section for talkers.

But Mr. Koch, president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, notes that 53 percent of his members - who are the sought-after frequent fliers who pay business rates - want to be able to use cellphones in flight. He insists that "noise canceling electronics" could make it possible for people to chat and not bother their neighbors.

"An airline is just like any other company: It needs to be responsive to its customers," he says. "But we do want to make sure the technology is right and that there's respect for others on the airplanes."

Mr. Mitchell, who's president of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa., says if that technology can be developed, then fine. But until then, cell silence is the preferable policy.

An entrepreneurial opportunity?

"If this is that important, then some entrepreneur will come up with something that would allow people to speak in a way that won't be a nuisance to others," he says. "In the meantime, the negatives still far outweigh the benefits."

The FAA study on the impact of cellphone use on a plane's avionics, or electronics, will be ready in December 2006. If, as expected, it determines that cellphone use won't cause a safety hazard, Koch is ready with a compromise.

"There are other options, like text messaging, wireless e-mail, and BlackBerries," he says. "They would allow the business traveler to be productive and keep in touch with the office and still allow for a good environment in the airplane."

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