Airlines loosening rules on cell phones

Policy: More companies are allowing passengers to make calls while the plane is still boarding

Strategies

August 08, 1999|By Joe Sharkey | Joe Sharkey,New York Times News Service

Passengers were still filing down the aisle. The American Airlines flight attendant had to scoot around them to pounce on the miscreant like a hall monitor cornering a school scofflaw.

"Sir, you put that away immediately!" he barked.

The passenger, who had just completed a quick cell phone call to check his office voice mail, was already putting the phone away. But he told the flight attendant that he had thought it was permissible to use a cell phone on an airplane at the gate when the doors were still open.

"It's strictly against federal law," the flight attendant declared.

"Federal law or airline policy?" the passenger asked.

The ensuing discussion ended when the flight attendant threatened to have the passenger removed from the plane for questioning the source of the policy.

The answer, incidentally, is that individual airlines, not federal regulations, set policies about the use of cell phones while an aircraft is still at the gate with its doors open. But those policies are changing.

While most airlines still prohibit the use of cell phones at any time on an aircraft, others have begun to loosen the rules and allow passengers to use the electronic devices until the plane's doors are shut. Some industry officials predict that the trend will soon encompass all major carriers.

Delta Air Lines, the latest carrier to allow cell phone use on board at the gate, changed its policy in June after an eight-month study of the potential for cell phone interference with preflight preparations in the cockpit.

"We concluded it was safe," said John Kennedy, a spokesman for Delta. "All the airlines have been looking at this for some time. We just did not know how cell phones might interfere with all the other communications that are going on in an aircraft" while it is still boarding passengers."

Besides improving customer satisfaction, especially among business travelers, the policy change expedites the boarding process and departure times, because those who have to make a call know they can now do it on board.

When cell phones began proliferating several years ago, airlines noticed that many business passengers held back to make cell phone calls even after boarding was announced. "You had all these passengers using their cell phones near the gate" until the last minute, Kennedy said.

Only a handful of airlines, including Delta and Northwest Airlines, now allow cell phone use at the gate. However, policies can change fast once one of the major airlines takes a step that customers like.

"The airlines are gradually coming out and saying, it looks OK, cell phones appear not to interfere with safety" while the plane is at the gate," Kennedy said. "It's happening quickly. I would imagine ultimately we'll all be on board with the same program."

There is no indication of when -- or if -- cell phone use might ever be allowed on airlines in flight. Though no airline official likes to discuss this, on-board telephones available at airline seats generate revenue that is lost when customers use personal phones.

The Federal Aviation Administration, meanwhile, is continuing to study the possible interference posed by cell phones and other devices to aircraft navigation systems. Right now, the law is clear.

"Cell phones and other personal electronic devices, everything from laptops to Furbys, cannot be used in the critical phases of flight, which are defined as 10,000 feet and below, and during takeoffs and landings," said Kathryn Creedy, a spokeswoman for the FAA.

While federal law does not address it, airlines are free to enforce their own policies for cell phone use on the ground.

"At the gate is a gray area," Creedy said.

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