Relations were so strained between cell phone talkers and their involuntary audiences aboard Amtrak trains two years ago that the railroad began designating "quiet cars" to keep the peace. Now, cellular phones are beginning to find limited acceptance in another form of public transportation: commercial airliners.
At least three airlines, American, Continental and, most recently, JetBlue, have begun allowing passengers to make calls during that seemingly interminable period between when the wheels touch down at the destination and when the passenger actually escapes into the airport building.
No airborne calls
For the foreseeable future, though, federal regulations will keep the ears of airborne airline passengers safe from cell phone chatter.
Two agencies - the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission - ban cell phone use in aircraft from when the plane's doors are closed for departure to when it lands at the end of the trip, leaving to airline discretion the period after the wheels touch down. Most carriers simply ban cell phone use altogether.
The FAA, whose ban includes other wireless communications gadgets, is worried about interference with aircraft navigation aids, particularly those on the ground that send radio signals to planes to help pilots stay on course.
Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman, says there are no documented incidents of such interference from passenger-carried devices, but "we feel there is a potential for a problem, so we don't allow them."
Seatback phones installed by many airlines for use by passengers differ technically and don't pose a threat, experts say, but they're expensive to use and not very popular.
As of last month, United Airlines' passengers have been offered the ability to plug their laptops into onboard Verizon Airfones to send and receive e-mail.
The FCC bans airborne use of cell phones because a phone broadcasting from 35,000 feet can reach many cell phone towers and play havoc with the system.
American, Continental and JetBlue say they relaxed their rules in response to customer desires.
"People are keen to get in touch with whoever is picking them up or with friends or family," said JetBlue spokeswoman Fiona Morrison.
Further liberalization could hinge on the findings of a study begun recently by a little-known Washington nonprofit group, RTCA Inc., which advises government agencies on aviation electronics matters. The FAA retained RTCA to examine the potential safety hazards of cell phones, personal data assistants and other wireless devices.
RTCA President David S. Watrous says anecdotal, not scientific, evidence indicates that communications devices cause problems. "We can't be sure unless we can replicate the problem," he said.
The study is scheduled to take about two years.
AirCell Inc. said this month that it has won a patent for a type of signal repeater that, when installed in a jetliner, would permit passengers to make calls with their own cell phones without interfering with the cockpit equipment or mucking up the cell systems on the ground.
Pending federal approvals, the system could be in planes in two years, said the company, which is based in Louisville, Colo.
"It's absolutely going to happen," said Bill Petola, marketing vice president, "but we've got to make sure we do it right and do it safely."
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.