- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 2004

COX NEWS SERVICE - Buckle your seat belts. Place those tray tables in the upright and locked position. But don’t bother to put away that cell phone.

In what is both a dream and nightmare for air travelers, federal regulators plan to begin considering rules today that would allow the use of wireless phones and other gadgets above the clouds.

The government for decades has banned using cell phones and other devices that deliberately emit radio signals on U.S. commercial flights, a precaution against potentially dangerous interference with a plane’s communications and electronics.

The rules have made airline cabins one of the last bastions of cell phone freedom. However, new technology and demand from electronically connected consumers means that in a few years, passengers could be flying the chatty skies.

Most airlines allow cell phone use when a plane is on the ground or at an airport gate. Except for illegal wireless calls some passengers make at low altitudes, air-to-ground communications are restricted to unpopular seat-back handsets charging $1.99 per minute or more.

“If the consumer is limited to using the devices provided only by the airline, it limits their options,” said John Muleta, the wireless bureau chief for the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC plans to seek comment on relaxing its airborne wireless rules, which date from the mid-1980s and the dawn of the cell phone era. At the time, technology for coping with interference was less sophisticated, and the gaggle of wireless consumer devices didn’t exist.

“We’re so used to being in touch these days at all times,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington advocacy group.

He said the benefits of having cell phones, laptops with wireless Internet and two-way e-mail devices will outweigh inevitable annoyances in the sky.

Not everyone agrees.

“Can you imagine sitting next to a woman who is screaming about her ulcer to her Aunt Molly in Detroit for four hours?” said Barbara Pachter, a New Jersey corporate etiquette trainer and author of “The Jerk With the Cell Phone: A Survival Guide for the Rest of Us.”

Ms. Pachter said polite and respectful behavior could make cell phones in the sky tolerable, but the reality probably will be overly loud ringers and voices, creating the potential for “cell phone rage.”

Airlines will have to establish passenger cell phone etiquette if the ban is lifted, said Jack Evans, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group.

Cell phones typically don’t work above 10,000 feet. That hasn’t stopped some people at lower altitudes from making surreptitious calls from plane bathrooms and typing on e-mail devices below tray tables.

Airborne wireless calls grabbed public attention in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks when some passengers and crew on the hijacked planes used their phones to call authorities and loved ones.

Airlines in the economically troubled industry, sensing a potentially lucrative new service, have been testing technology that allows wireless devices to work throughout a flight.

In July, American Airlines and wireless equipment maker Qualcomm Inc. demonstrated a system that let passengers on a commercial plane make cell phone calls and send text messages during a two-hour trip. The system used a “picocell,” a kind of miniature airborne cell tower that relayed calls through a satellite link to the phone network on the ground.

American Airlines officials said the technology is two years away from commercial application. It also would require changes in the FCC and Federal Aviation Administration regulations that ban cell phone use in flight.

Closer to reality is high-speed Internet service in the air sent over the same airwaves used by the air-to-ground seat-back phones. The FCC is expected to approve rules that promote competition for that service in a separate ruling today.

But many hurdles remain before passengers will be able to use the phones. The overhaul of inconsistent regulations overseen by two federal agencies and individual airlines shaping their own wireless policies could take years.

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