Cell Phones in the Skies: Social and Political Battle

You can't escape them. Not in cars or bars, classrooms or restrooms, back yards or even graveyards.

There's only been one steady refuge from cell phones: a plane in flight. But federal regulators are weighing an end to that sanctuary as well, as tech wizards work to ensure the phones won't mess up a plane's electronics.

But this is more than a technology issue. It's a social and political battle. And at the front lines are the nation's flight attendants.

"Yes, the last bastion of peace is being threatened," said Jeanne Elliott, regulatory affairs coordinator for the Professional Flight Attendants Association at Northwest Airlines.

The association is urging its 11,000 members to write the Federal Communications Commission to oppose an end to the federal agency's in-flight cell phone ban, or at least urge a most-cautious relaxation of it. The union's biggest concern is that folks would be gabbing on their cell phones while ignoring critical safety directives from flight attendants.

The FCC is taking public comment on the matter until March 31.

Also rallying members against any relaxation of restrictions on in-flight cellular chitchat is the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents more than 40,000 flight attendants at 26 airlines, including United and US Airways. It dismisses in-flight wireless gab as "irresponsible and a bad idea."

Flight attendants are in tune with the public on this issue.

Earlier this year, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that nearly 70 percent of frequent or occasional fliers want the feds to maintain the ban.

Cell-phone-toting travelers interviewed at the airport last week were dead set against allowing the phones to be used in flight.

"These people get on (their phones) and talk so loud," said Hubert Dubey of Warren, Ohio. "I don't want to see them on planes. I don't want to know everyone's business."

Paul Rosenthal of St. Paul hears too many cell phone conversations, already.

"I hate them in restaurants," he said. "I hate them in cars. In planes, they'd be intolerable."

But what about those folks who can't seem to disconnect like the road warriors you see at airports, cell phones stuck to their ears like a needle in a drug addict's vein?

Some people feel the need to stay on their phone, figuring that if they're in constant touch, they're more valuable to their organization and can't be easily replaced, said Gaye Vollrath, travel and finance programs manager at Plato Learning, a Bloomington-based educational software company.

No matter what the FCC does, however, smart airlines still won't allow cellular chat in flight, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents major corporate purchasers of travel services.

"They won't touch it with a 100-foot fuselage," he said. Mitchell noted that on some routes, Amtrak has established quiet trains, where folks are expected to stay off their cell phones. But how could such a strategy be adapted for a plane?

Eagan-based Northwest is monitoring developments but has no immediate plans for offering in-flight cell service, said spokeswoman Mary Stanik.

The CTIA, a wireless industry trade group, is careful about what it says.

"We believe all the technology challenges will be overcome and this service could be available," said spokesman Joe Farren. "That's where we are right now. We think ultimately this is an issue the marketplace will figure out."

Pricing, to be sure, is another issue to be determined. Travelers should expect to pay some premium roaming charge for in-flight talk.

The only current option, Verizon Airfone's air-to-ground communication service, is a tad expensive. The service, deployed on 1,500 planes, costs $3.99 to connect and $3.99 a minute to talk.

Up on the flight deck, pilots won't have to listen to passengers' gab. The pilots are most concerned with any possible interference with navigational systems and other critical electronics, said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association.

"There have been anecdotal reports of electronic devices interfering with navigational systems," he said. "The problem is that they're anecdotal."

The Federal Aviation Administration has its own set of cell phone prohibitions.

Weighing heavily in any relaxation of FAA restrictions will be a report due next year from the RCTA, the Requirements and Technical Concepts for Aviation, a group composed of dozens of representatives from the airlines, plane manufacturers, wireless service providers and phone manufacturers, airline employees and other interested parties.

They're digesting reports on such topics as electromagnetic propagation in aircraft fuselages.

"The bottom line is we have to be sure there is no interference with the safe operation of the aircraft," said FAA spokesman Les Door.

Elliott, of the flight attendants' union, said the PFAA is not against any use of cell phones in flight. But their use needs to be very limited, for instance for emergency calls.

"The industry needs to take baby steps," she said, "and be real cautious about what we are opening ourselves up to."