Cellphones in the sky?

Prospects improve that airlines will OK their use in flight.

Kiichiro Sato/AP/FILE
Land-based for now: Passengers in the US can't use cellphones in the air, but resistance to the idea is declining, some analysts say.

With airlines now racing to provide Internet service to their cramped, tired, and often late passengers (think of it as a small bone thrown to a very hungry dog) and the European Union already giving the A OK to dialing in the sky, it may not be long before passengers in the US will also be able to chatter away on their cellphones at 30,000 feet.

Even a year ago, the notion seemed improbable. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had banned it; questions remained about its safety; and polls showed Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to it, as much as 70 percent in some surveys.

But like the ever expanding options available on the phones themselves, things change. The FCC is no longer opposed to cellphone use in planes; technology has resolved safety concerns; and a poll released last week by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that Americans are now split on whether it would be advisable to let the passenger in the next seat chat up his brother on the phone.

For now, at least, the decision lies with the individual airlines. Some may soon allow it, if only to test the public's reaction.

"It may be hard to stop technology moving forward," says Clint Oster, an aviation economist at Indiana University in Bloomington. "The interesting question is whether this will be regarded as enough of a convenience to overcome the nuisance factor."

Yes, the nuisance factor.

For some travelers who value their sky-high, cellphone-free sanctuary, that is a major concern. It's bad enough to have to listen to one-sided conversations while waiting to board the plane, they note, but at least one can walk away. But an airplane is an enclosed metal tube in which one is regularly advised to stay strapped into his or her seat.

"The airplane cabin today is a toxic combination of stressed out, exhausted people, some of whom were drinking for four hours in the airport because their plane was delayed. And you interject into that a one-sided conversation at 30,000 feet, I think for the most part you're asking for trouble," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "I think we would have the kind of air-rage phenomenon of 10 years ago."

Some in Congress feel so strongly about it that they've established the "Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace Act" or the HANG-UP Act, as it's known around the halls of House. That would set some rules: It would allow text messaging and Internet use on cellphones but ban voice communications.

That was given preliminary approval by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this month and is now on its way to a vote in the full House.

"With airline customer satisfaction at an all-time low, this is not the time to consider making airplane travel even more torturous," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon in a statement.

Bigger aviation issues loom, critics say

The idea that Congress is using its time to focus on whether or not one can talk in the sky has infuriated some aviation analysts who note that lawmakers have yet to approve a long-overdue Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill or provide funding to expand the nation's woefully inadequate aviation infrastructure.

"What's really outrageous is that it was done in the transportation infrastructure committee. We've got airports collapsing, the air-traffic control system collapsing, airports needing funding, and they're worried about people talking on phones on an airplane only because it would be noisy?" says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation-consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo. "What does that have to do with infrastructure?"

Mr. Boyd is in favor of allowing cellphone use. He does not believe that it would cause too much of a nuisance.

"I don't buy this argument that you're going to be in a big metal tube with people yelling and screaming," he says. "People already talk on airplanes and you can barely hear them because the ambient noise is so high."

There may be room for a compromise.

A 'quiet room' for planes?

Remember the smoking sections on airplanes? How about a quiet or cellphone-free zone? Amtrak's Acela trains, which travel between Washington and Boston, has a quiet car, which Richard Golaszewski says works just fine.

"The people in that quiet car will just go nuclear if your phone rings or you're talking on the phone – it's really well-enforced," says Mr. Golaszewski, executive vice president of GRA Inc., an aviation-consulting firm in Jenkintown, Pa. "I think with reasonable rules, a quiet section, and basic human courtesy towards one another – you know, don't yell, don't tell your dirty jokes out loud – I think it could work quite well."

Of course, financially strapped airlines may allow cellphone use and charge an extra fee if one wants to sit in that quiet zone.

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