Flight Crews: Keep Ban on Cells

April 8, 2005
According to a poll released Thursday by the flight attendants union, 63 percent of airline passengers oppose the idea of allowing in-flight cell phone calls.

It seems as though there's one on every flight: the passenger who gabs into a cell phone through the boarding process and keeps chatting until the final seconds before take-off, silenced only by a flight attendant who asks that the phone be turned off.

Now, the flight attendants are doing what they can to tell the Federal Communications Commission that its proposal to lift the ban on cell phone use in the air is a bad idea.

According to a poll released Thursday by the flight attendants union, 63 percent of airline passengers oppose the idea of allowing in-flight cell phone calls, citing the disruptive noise from yakking passengers as their primary reason.

The flight attendants' union believes cell phone use would create a more stressful environment on flights, potentially leading to incidents of ''air rage.''

Some travelers share a similar sentiment. ''It would annoy me,'' said Hal Sennit of Palm Desert, who flew into Mineta San Jose International Airport with his wife, Helena, on Thursday afternoon. ''I am absolutely against it.''

But the ban was never put in place to minimize noise levels inside the plane. The FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration put the prohibition in place for safety and technological reasons.

The FCC had long been concerned that cell phone use on an airplane might interfere with cellular signals on the ground, while the FAA worries that the cellular phone traffic might interfere with the navigation and communication systems in the cockpit.

Late last year, the FCC said technological advances had reduced its concerns. And the FAA has launched a study of cell phone effects on cockpit control that is due early next year. If those concerns of interference go away, the two agencies could lift their respective bans in the next year or so.

That has flight attendants worried about the in-flight noise, which could interfere with a passenger's willingness and ability to follow safety instructions and possibly lead to ''air rage'' that they would be forced to police.

''We believe they can't consider this purely on a technological basis,'' said Pat Friend, president of the Washington-based Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which co-sponsored the poll along with the National Consumers League. ''They have to consider the implications to on-board safety and the human factors. What effect would cell phone use have on the occupants of that airplane?''

Flying already can be a stressful experience, especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When passengers have disputes -- mostly surrounding the overhead compartment space for carry-on luggage -- it's the flight attendants who intervene to keep people calm, Friend said.

''We believe cell phone usage will just create an even more stressful environment and lead to more disputes,'' she said.

But that really doesn't matter much, said FAA spokesman Donn Walker.

''The federal government is not in the business of banning things based on people's preferences,'' he said. ''It is of no concern to us whether people do or don't want cell phones on planes. We prohibit them right now because of safety issues.''

He also noted that, even if the ban is lifted, individual airlines still could put their own prohibitions in place -- possibly as a selling point for those who want to travel in a peaceful, cell-free zone.

Nick Polo, a Los Angeles-area accountant who flew from Burbank to San Jose for a meeting Thursday afternoon, said he knows there are reasons that people probably need to make a call while in-flight but enjoys being able to disconnect while he's flying.

''I think people should be able to live a few hours without a cell phone,'' he said. ''I've never heard of a story where it makes much difference anyway. You have to wait until you get back on the ground to take care of things.''

But Andy Janti, who flew in from San Diego on Thursday, said it could be nice to make a call on long flights -- such as a trans-Pacific one to his native Indonesia.

''If you're on a short flight, you can probably wait,'' he said, adding that he sometimes doesn't even open his laptop computer on short flights. ''If it's just an hour or so, I'll just rest or maybe read a book or magazine.''

The survey -- which also presented what-if scenarios if the ban is lifted -- revealed that about 80 percent of surveyed passengers worried the cell phone use would put the nation at higher risk for terrorist attacks because in-flight terrorists would be able to easily communicate with their on-the-ground counterparts.

Also, 70 percent of respondents favored sectioning off the plane for cell phone use and non-use. And 90 percent favored a requirement that cell phones be banned during safety and emergency announcements.

The survey was conducted by Lauer Research, which polled 702 frequent and occasional air passengers nationwide from March 28 to April 2. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.