Fliers Fear Cellular Blab, Hot-Air Planes

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Airline passengers already are beginning to brace for the eventual introduction of cell phones on commercial flights. Listen to Richard Archambault, an architect from Schaumburg, Ill., who wants to plug his ears against the expected yelling into balky receivers.

"People who don't hesitate to talk in restaurants or other taboo venues will take their disrespectful attitudes with them to the skies and turn a once-quiet place of refuge into a noisy, office-like environment to the detriment of all," Archambault said. "Overuse of the devices, loud talkers and self-important businessmen who get a kick from showing off their power will turn our airplane cabins into intolerable chatterboxes, further removing, and perhaps eliminating, all the remaining vestiges of civility in air travel."

The new wave of complaints comes as the Federal Communications Commission tomorrow begins a review of its 20-year-old rule prohibiting cell phone chatter at 30,000 feet. The commission will seek to determine whether recent advances in technology relieve earlier concerns about the use of cell phones aboard airlines.

The FCC also will solicit passengers' opinions. In the next week or so, travelers will be able to voice their views through the agency's Web site, www.fcc.gov. Information can be found on the site under "Filing Public Comments."

Still, travelers' worst fears of nonstop, transcontinental chatter won't be realized for years at least. Both the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration must approve the use of cell phones in airline cabins. If the FCC rules in favor of a change, the FAA still isn't likely to seriously begin grappling with the question until 2006, pending results of its own studies.

For its part, the FAA has banned cell phone use aboard commercial flights because of concern that the transmissions could interfere with aircraft navigational equipment. The agency has commissioned a report by the nonprofit RTCA Inc., formerly the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, to examine the issue. So far, the FAA has not proved conclusively that cell phones interfere with navigation. But the agency has long preferred to err on the side of caution.

"The problem is there is no data or evidence that cell phones do or do not cause a problem," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

In its review, the FCC will address whether cell phones used on airliners are a problem for communications on the ground. An FCC study in 2000 found that dropped or blocked calls on the ground increased because passengers overhead were talking on their cell phones. Cellular signals coming from high altitudes are spread across several base stations, interfering with callers on the ground who are using the same frequencies.

The FCC also is expected to study ways to introduce more price competition among companies that offer telephone and high-speed Internet services from the sky.

The current cell phone ban requires passengers to turn off the devices when the plane's door is closed for takeoff. Some airlines allow travelers to make calls after a flight has landed and is taxiing toward the gate.

Airlines, aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and telecommunication companies such as Verizon have lobbied hard on the issue. Several carriers, recognizing that business travelers crave to remain connected, have won approval from the FAA and FCC to test how cell phones affect their own aircraft systems. American Airlines and Qualcomm Inc. conducted tests in the summer.

With cell phone use proliferating, Amtrak designated phone-free quiet cars in early 2001 on many trains along the Northeast corridor after a flood of complaints from passengers.

Though isolating phone users on airplanes will prove difficult, Fairfax software technician Kate Schwarz hopes that airlines figure out a way to create "special noise pollution sections" in the rear.

Vienna-based frequent traveler John V. Dohmen said he supports instant wireless messaging and e-mail but not cell phone usage. "Can't you just hear it now?" he asked. "Ten conference calls going on with passengers and their offices, each participant trying to talk louder than the next passenger because they just normally talk louder on a cell phone, and a number are trying to impress the rest of the plane with how important they are."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company