Please don't phone home

Last updated 10:17 25/11/2013

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Think cramped seats, snoring passengers, crying babies and mediocre - or non-existent- food make flying miserable?

Imagine what it will be like to sit next to a person yammering on his or her cellphone.

That's what many passengers and airline analysts are contemplating in light of the Federal Communications Commission's decision to review its 22-year ban against in-flight cellphone calls.

The FCC banned cellphone use over concerns that it would jam ground stations.

Now the agency says that modern technology has made the use of mobile devices on board safe.

The agency will seek public comment if the proposal moves forward. The commission will consider the proposal at a December 12 meeting.

It would let the airlines decide whether to allow passengers to make phone calls, send texts or otherwise use their own wireless data and call services, although still not during takeoff or landing.

Airlines expressed concern about the proposal, and the union representing flight attendants said passengers rejected cellphone use and urged the FCC not to proceed.

"We understand that many passengers would prefer that voice calls not be made on airplanes. I feel that way myself," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement.

There is "no technical reason" to bar the use of mobile devices on planes and the FCC's role is to advise if there is a safety issue with using phones on planes, he said.

"Ultimately, if the FCC adopts the proposal in the coming months, it will be airlines' decisions, in consultation with their customers, as to whether to permit voice calls while in flight," Wheeler said.

Some passengers say letting people make calls is taking things too far.

In a world where people seem attached to their cellphones, these passengers say they enjoy the forced respite from cellphones ringing and loud conversations.

Allowing cellphone calls, they say, would turn the cabin into a satellite office.

"What can be so important that you can't wait until you land?" says Dave Army, a USA TODAY Road Warrior from Prescott, Arizona.

"I look forward to not having the phone ring. I do like having Internet access, and the ability to read my iPad at all times, but that's as far as it goes."

Experts are torn.

Cellphones have been used widely on dozens of airlines in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, and few have had problems with them, says Michael Planey, co-founder of H&M Planey Consultants, a consulting practice focused on emerging technology for the travel industry.

"They have not had the problems with the behaviour and social issues that a lot of people feared," he says.

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For one thing, he says, long phone calls are cost-prohibitive. Because many airlines charge $2 to $5 a minute for a call, most people end up using their cellphones to send text messages rather than call.

"They're not shouting on the phone. They're not having hour-long business discussions. What they're doing is making last-minute arrangements," he says.

"The vast majority of these calls are under four minutes in duration, and I don't think it's going to change just because it's going to be in the United States."

Brett Snyder, founder of the travel-assistance website and blog The Cranky Flier, points out that planes were once equipped with seatback phones that people could use with the swipe of a credit card.

"That's just like back in the old days when they had the GTE Airfones on board," he says. "People didn't use them unless it was very important because it was so expensive."

Clint Balog, associate chair of the Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says he believes passengers won't be able to resist talking on their phones for as long as they can.

"We live in a culture where people are just glued to these phones more than we realize even to the point of inconsideration of others," says Balog, who has a Ph.D. in psychology. "It's going to be reflective of the culture we live in."

Balog foresees scenarios that could end with a flight attendant mediating a conflict.

What if it's an overnight flight, and a passenger is trying to sleep while a seatmate is chatting away on the phone? What if a person is stuck in a middle seat in between two people speaking loudly on their phones?

"It's going to take an already difficult experience - it's certainly not as much fun to fly on an airline now than it was 20 years ago - and it's going to degrade that experience even more," he says.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has taken the same position.

"People want a peaceful, calm cabin," says Veda Shook, international president for the group and a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines for 22 years.

Even Amtrak has had to address tensions among passengers over cellphone use by setting aside a quiet car.

"Amtrak's got a quiet car, and it's very popular for a reason," Shook says. "We don't have the option of having a quiet car on an airplane. It's one airplane. There's no way to create a space for someone to have a private conversation."

Kevin Schorr, vice president of Campbell-Hill Aviation Group, says there's one party that could benefit from cellphone use on planes: airlines.

Airlines have made billions of dollars by charging fees for everything from checking bags to picking seats.

"If there's a way for airlines to make money off it, I think they will find some way to," he says.

One idea that he cheekily proposed: "They can take out a lavatory and set up a phone booth, and you'd swipe a credit card to get out."

- MCT and Reuters


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