In-flight cell phone use not popular

Most passengers prefer peace and quiet to chattering, poll finds

April 08, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

As a United Airlines plane recently taxied toward its gate at Reagan Washington National Airport, a group of 15 excited school kids on board pulled out their cell phones to call friends. Friends on the same plane, that is.

The chatter, permitted while the plane was on the ground, could at some point be allowed in-flight, something that flight attendant Valerie Walker said might be hard to take.

Yesterday, she, along with officials from the Association of Flight Attendants and the National Consumers League, released a poll that found most travelers agree that lifting a government ban on in-flight cell phone use would jeopardize more than their safety and security. It would threaten their peace and quiet.

"At least 15 pulled out their cell phones," Walker said during a news conference in Washington to announce the poll's findings. "You can make a prediction about what would happen if the ban was lifted."

In December, the Federal Communications Commission proposed lifting its in-flight ban, and as the public comment period comes to a close May 26, the two groups are stepping up their opposition as others have come out in favor.

Not that anything will happen fast: If the agency decides to allow cellular phones during flights, the Federal Aviation Administration will have to consider the move. Then the airlines would have to approve it and install transmitters that allow phones to work above 10,000 feet.

The FCC banned cell phones about 15 years ago out of concern they would interfere with phone networks on the ground. FAA rules prohibit phone use and other electronic communication devices because of potential interference with aircraft navigation systems, although studies on their actual impact are inconclusive.

Reflecting the changing times, the FCC has said it wanted to see if there was still a problem.

An agency spokeswoman said on-board cell phone usage is probably still a ways off. In the meantime, the FCC plans to auction more radio frequencies to communications companies. That could bring more competition and lower prices to the seat-back phones, currently offered only by Verizon Wireless, and promote development of technology to bring the Internet to flights.

The FAA also has commissioned a study by a group composed of government and industry officials on the use of cell phones and other mobile data devices that is due to be completed in January.

The flight attendants association and the consumers league say lifting the ban would allow people to ignore safety directions from flight attendants, prompt more air rage incidents, interfere with a plane's electronic systems and maker it easier for terrorists to coordinate an attack.

"We know cell phone chatter in public places can be annoying," notes Patricia A. Friend, president of the attendants association. "So, just imagine being confined in an aluminum tube thousands of feet above the ground with nowhere to go."

She said quiet sections, like those found on Amtrak passenger trains, would not contain the noise on a cramped airplane.

Friend said the poll, conducted March 28 to April 2 among 702 frequent travelers by Lauer Research Inc., found that most people agree with the league and the flight attendants association on issues of etiquette. The poll had a margin of error of 3.7 percent.

Although many of the questions conveyed a neutral tone, the responses with the highest percentages were to questions that appeared to lean in favor of retaining the ban. The questions listed situations such as terrorists using their phones to plan attacks, describing airplanes as "stressful" with "close quarters," and asking if it was too soon to lift a ban because the FAA was still studying the possibility of interference with equipment.

When specifically asked, travelers polled thought flight attendants should be able to instantly shut off the phones during safety announcements.

Still, Thom McDaniel, president of Southwest Airlines' flight attendants union, said the poll is useful to draw attention to cell phone problems.

Passengers routinely ignore, or don't know, the rules about using their phones. Some try to make calls after takeoff, he said.

"We need their attention and we can't get it," he said. "Our first concern is safety."

Lois Raimondi Munchel, owner of Amore Travel on East Joppa Road in Parkville, said she believes her business and leisure travelers can get by without using their phones aboard flights. And most, she believes, would oppose lifting the ban.

"If you're traveling, what's the longest it's really going to be before you land, four or five hours?" she said. "As soon as you get to the airport, you have access to your cell phone, so there wouldn't be a dire need."

Some airlines say they are waiting to see what the government decides before they take a stand.

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