United Airlines flight attendant Valerie Walker flew into Reagan National Airport yesterday morning with a group of 30 teenage tourists excited about their first trip to the nation's capital. As soon as they landed, Walker said, "at least 15 children pulled out their cell phones and they all called each other."
Walker was reluctant to predict the level of chatter during the entire flight if the young tourists had been permitted to use their phones while in the air.
Qualcomm's Irwin Jacobs demonstrates cell technology on an American Airlines flight.
(Donna Mcwilliam -- AP)
She is one of many who shudder at the prospect of the federal government lifting its ban on cell phone use during flights. Industry and government are pouring millions of dollars into research to determine whether wireless communications pose a threat to airline navigation systems. But even if the technology should prove harmless, the bigger hurdle may turn out to be human resistance.
"The airplane is one of the few places you can go to have some quiet time," said Susan Grant, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League, which sponsored a poll released yesterday that said 63 percent of Americans don't want the federal government to lift its ban on cell phones in flight. "If we lose that, there will be no place to hide from the aggravation of having to listen to the unwanted conversation of other people."
The majority of travelers who want to keep the ban said cell phones would be annoying and distracting. Three out of four travelers said introducing cell phones in the close quarters of an airplane would increase the likelihood for "air rage." The poll, conducted by Lauer Research Inc., was also funded by Communications Workers of America, which represents the nation's largest flight attendants union, an organization that opposes lifting the cell phone restrictions.
Major airlines are unsure whether to publicly push for the ban's removal. Allowing cell phones in flight could be viewed as an added customer service. But it could also risk alienating some customers and cause a rift with airline employees -- mainly the flight attendants -- who fear cell phones will become a source of passenger anger and misbehavior.
"Privately, most of us are leaning against it because customers don't want it," said one airline executive who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting travelers. "Can you imagine flying from Washington to San Francisco and everyone yelling in their phones, 'We're about to land! We're about to land!'?"
The rising opposition to cell phones in flight comes at a time when technology has enabled Americans to be reachable 24 hours a day, and there are few places -- other than on an airplane -- where one can't be easily phoned, text-messaged or pinged with an e-mail. The Federal Communications Commission cited new developments in technology when it said it would consider lifting the ban on cell phones later this year, but the issue is complicated by human and cultural concerns, such as the potential for passenger confrontations, the practicality of establishing quiet zones in airline cabins and etiquette.
American Airlines is considering designating an area of the plane, either in the back or near the front, for cell phone users. The airline also said it might designate certain times during flights when passengers could talk on their phones. Spokesman Tim Wagner would not elaborate on the plans, which he said were still "very early and preliminary."
Amtrak solved the problem of separating cell phone travelers by offering one quiet car on its Northeast corridor trains in 2001 -- the kind of solution impossible for the airlines. "They're extremely popular," said Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black.