Friday, October 15, 2010

Cell Hell

"HELLO? HELLO? I can't hear you. What? Hold it, hold it, whoa, you're breaking up. I'm over the Rockies. I'M OVER THE ROCKIES! I'll call you back when I get to a land line.''

Sound familiar? Involuntarily overhearing lovers' quarrels, minutes of sales meetings or plans for family vacations could be as close as the guy in front of you with his seat pushed all the way back if persistent proposals to allow the use of personal cell phones in-flight become reality.

Right now, they're just that - proposals - at least in the United States. There's still time to make your voice heard if you feel passionately about the issue one way or another. But the clock is running, and Cell Hell, American Style, may eventually be upon us.

The European Union's equivalent of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration - the European Aviation Safety Association - has ruled there are no technical reasons why in-flight voice communications wouldn't be safe and efficient. The FAA says there are.

The safety of in-flight mobile phones has been debated in tech circles for years, with no clear consensus.

Since 1991, the FAA has ruled-out personal cell phones in-flight, saying their signals may interfere with an airliner's avionics and compromise safety, or scramble wireless networks on the ground. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission agrees. Seatback phone services have long been available, but never took off, in part because travelers deemed them too expensive.

In December 2004, the FCC shook things up by announcing that it might lift the ban on personal mobile phones. The commission solicited public comment from travelers and reviewed the scientific literature. Then, in April 2007, the FCC decided the ban would stay. There it remains.

With no regulatory green light, no U.S. carrier has pushed plans to allow cell phone service at 35,000 feet. Instead, non-U.S. carriers are driving the agenda. Although cabin crews dread eruptions of air rage between, say, a passenger who wants to sleep or read and one who can't sleep and wants to talk, the ubiquity of mobile phones in modern life and the fact that charging fliers to use them could generate badly needed revenue is tempting airlines to give it a try.

Bmi, a unit of the Lufthansa Group, and Irish carrier ryanair, run by Michael O'Leary - he of the cherished bad-boy public image - have put equipment in place to allow midair chat, according to media reports, and several Asian carriers are reportedly on the brink. If in-flight phone chatter takes off, U.S. carriers will be sorely tempted to follow.

If they do so, it's very likely there will be passenger push-back, at least initially. A few years back, when I wrote about this issue for the San Francisco Chronicle, I got 100 reader e-mails commenting on the subject; more than 90 were opposed to mobile phone use in the sky. For ordinary stories, I customarily received from zero to six or seven comments.

U.S. air travelers can sound off by contacting the FCC's Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC, or e-mailing, or by writing to: Federal Communications Commission, Consumer & Government Affairs Bureau, Consumer Inquiry and Complaints Division, 455 Twelfth St., SW, Washington, D.C. 20554.

No comments:

Post a Comment