Cell Phones on Airplanes

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International airline to allow cell phone chatter on planes

By Grace Wong
Special to CNN

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- From cell phone use to high-speed Internet access, the connected life is spreading to the skies.

In January, Emirates airline plans to launch mobile phone usage in its planes, making it the first airline to allow passengers to make cell phone calls on its flights.


A majority of business travelers (61 percent) oppose the idea of being able to use their phones in the sky, according to a global survey conducted by travel management company Carlson Wagonlit Travel early this year.

But if the technology is there, the service will eventually make its way to the skies, said Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch.

"Whether people like it or not, in-flight cell phone use is going to become a reality," he said.

I'm not thrilled with this, but there are a lot issues related to the cell phones on airplanes.

First, I'm not convinced modern cell phones pose any danger to aircraft safety on a properly maintained aircraft. The equipment is too well shielded. The ban for "safety" reasons seems more related to a better-safe-than-sorry approach. It still seems like overkill, though.

On any giver aircraft in flight, there are already multiple cell phones running on any given airplane. People stick them in their carry-on and forget to turn them off. And planes don't drop out of the sky as a result.

Granted, they are not running at full power when not engaged in a call. And if I'm sitting near one of those turned-on phones, I will hear the interference in my headphones right before it rings so there are definitely some strong radio wave running around. But none of those planes have gone down.

Second, the common conspiracy theory about the cell phone ban suggests the reason has more to do with profits than safety. The theory says that since the airlines typically offer the Verizon Airfon, which can cost upwards of $10/mintue to use, the airlines simply don't want the competition.

The problem with this theory is that most aircraft actually do not have the Airfon. Airlines have began removing these from aircraft during the 2001 economic crunch. They are dropping anything from the aircraft that adds extra weight, like magazines, blankets, and phones. Which it too bad, since the Verizon Airfon played a critical role in the story of UA 93.

Third, TSA will probably not allow it. They will see cell phone use as a serious security threat, similar to a gun, a knife or a bottle of orange juice. The imagined threat of in air cell phone use won't make any sense, but that's not usually a requirement.

Fourth, one early reason for the ban on cell phones in flight came not from the FAA but from the FCC. Normally a cell phone can see a few towers. The tower with the best signal manages the call. When a caller travels outside that tower's range, it passes the call to a different tower.

In flight, though, a cell phone can see dozens or hundreds of cell towers. Since the caller is traveling so high and fast, the signal handoffs become a nightmare for the system, significantly increasing traffic volume on the network and causing all sorts of billing hassles.

That may no longer be an issue due to improvements in cell (now wireless) technology. And, there are ways around that by installing equipment on the aircraft to manage the signals.

Fifth, airlines are already experimenting with wireless internet access. This will come before cell phone use. It may be nice to send email or surf the web on your notebook, but if they don't allow cell phone use soon, people will just use the Internet for their voice calls, too. Through services like Skype and Vonage, people can hook a headset up to their computer and make/receive voice calls anytime they are connected to the Internet. So the person next to you will start having conversations anyway.

Sixth, this brings us to the question of air rage. Once the ban is lifted, too many people will make calls. Many cell phone users are already under the illusion they need to speak loudly into their phones to be heard because, unlike regular phones, they can't hear their own voice back through the earpiece. This is going to be even worse on an airplane with the engine noise.

I already try to spend much of my time in coach trying to not touch the person sitting next to me. The last thing they want to be doing is yelling about the minutia of their lives 3" from my ear. I am likely to do something to them with their own cell phone that will get me added to the No-Fly list.

1 comment:

Brian Kunath said...

Well written and researched piece. I never considered that the reason people yell into cell phones was because they couldn't hear their own voice back in the earpiece. I just figured they were all douche bags. Which may also be correct. Just because one thing is correct doesn't necessarily mean the other isn't.

I'm rambling, which is exactly what I fear a lift on the ban will promote: endless, mindless rambling all around me. It already happens on the subway, buses, offices, coffee shops, movie theaters, restaurants, museums, plays, sporting events, funerals and inaugural speeches.

And always, ALWAYS, the conversation is the same: "What are you doing? I'm just on the subway. What? I said I'm on the subway!!"