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Cell phones dont work above 10k feet { April 8 2005 }

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   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/08/AR2005040800564.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/08/AR2005040800564.html

In-Flight Calls Could Cause Turbulence, Opponents Say

By Sara Kehaulani Goo and Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 8, 2005; E01


United Airlines flight attendant Valerie Walker flew into Reagan National Airport yesterday morning with a group of 30 teenage tourists excited about their first trip to the nation's capital. As soon as they landed, Walker said, "at least 15 children pulled out their cell phones and they all called each other."

Walker was reluctant to predict the level of chatter during the entire flight if the young tourists had been permitted to use their phones while in the air.

She is one of many who shudder at the prospect of the federal government lifting its ban on cell phone use during flights. Industry and government are pouring millions of dollars into research to determine whether wireless communications pose a threat to airline navigation systems. But even if the technology should prove harmless, the bigger hurdle may turn out to be human resistance.

"The airplane is one of the few places you can go to have some quiet time," said Susan Grant, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League, which sponsored a poll released yesterday that said 63 percent of Americans don't want the federal government to lift its ban on cell phones in flight. "If we lose that, there will be no place to hide from the aggravation of having to listen to the unwanted conversation of other people."

The majority of travelers who want to keep the ban said cell phones would be annoying and distracting. Three out of four travelers said introducing cell phones in the close quarters of an airplane would increase the likelihood for "air rage." The poll, conducted by Lauer Research Inc., was also funded by Communications Workers of America, which represents the nation's largest flight attendants union, an organization that opposes lifting the cell phone restrictions.

Major airlines are unsure whether to publicly push for the ban's removal. Allowing cell phones in flight could be viewed as an added customer service. But it could also risk alienating some customers and cause a rift with airline employees -- mainly the flight attendants -- who fear cell phones will become a source of passenger anger and misbehavior.

"Privately, most of us are leaning against it because customers don't want it," said one airline executive who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting travelers. "Can you imagine flying from Washington to San Francisco and everyone yelling in their phones, 'We're about to land! We're about to land!'?"

The rising opposition to cell phones in flight comes at a time when technology has enabled Americans to be reachable 24 hours a day, and there are few places -- other than on an airplane -- where one can't be easily phoned, text-messaged or pinged with an e-mail. The Federal Communications Commission cited new developments in technology when it said it would consider lifting the ban on cell phones later this year, but the issue is complicated by human and cultural concerns, such as the potential for passenger confrontations, the practicality of establishing quiet zones in airline cabins and etiquette.

American Airlines is considering designating an area of the plane, either in the back or near the front, for cell phone users. The airline also said it might designate certain times during flights when passengers could talk on their phones. Spokesman Tim Wagner would not elaborate on the plans, which he said were still "very early and preliminary."

Amtrak solved the problem of separating cell phone travelers by offering one quiet car on its Northeast corridor trains in 2001 -- the kind of solution impossible for the airlines. "They're extremely popular," said Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black.

A move to cell phones in flight would mean the death of the built-in aircraft phones that never proved very profitable for the airlines. Travelers avoided the fees of $3 to $6 per minute, and airlines said the in-flight phones were added weight that increased fuel costs. Delta Air Lines has removed the phones from all of its planes. American has taken the phones off all domestic routes. "For the amount of times people used them, they just weren't worth it," said Delta spokeswoman Benet Wilson.

No change in the airline rules on cell phones is likely for at least a couple of years. Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission must approve cell phone use on planes. The FAA is awaiting results of a study, due in December 2006, on whether the phones interfere with navigational equipment.

Pilots and flight attendants have reported 76 incidents since 1999 in which portable electronic devices may have interfered with navigational systems, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Many of the cases involved an unruly passenger who refused to abide by cell phone restrictions. Other incidents occurred when pilots received faulty instrument warnings and later discovered that a passenger was using a cell phone. Cell phone transmissions can create electromagnetic fields that warp operation of nearby devices.

Beyond the safety concerns, cell phone service may not be great at high altitudes. At 30,000 feet a phone may have difficulty sending a signal to a tower on the ground. Most cell phones can't reach a station from beyond 10,000 feet, said Roger Entner, an analyst with research firm Ovum Ltd.

Another technical hurdle is to find a way that cell phone calls would be handed off from one cell tower to another on the ground when the aircraft is traveling at 500 miles an hour. The handoff is fairly simple when the speaker is walking or driving, but at aircraft speed calls would likely be dropped.

Boeing and other companies are experimenting with a possible solution. Airlines could install a device called a picocell -- about the size of a smoke detector -- on each plane to collect all the cell phone calls on board and transmit them directly to a satellite or a base station designed just for in-flight calls. That would alleviate the problem of each cell phone caller needing to connect with towers on the ground, Entner said.

Some airlines, such as Lufthansa, already use a similar technology that allows passengers to connect to the Internet while in flight. Charles Engelke, of Macon, Ga., a frequent flier and computer software executive, said he doesn't like the idea of hearing his fellow passengers talk during a flight, but he would happily use the wireless connection on his laptop. "To be able to surf the Net and send e-mails would be fantastic," he said.

Staff writer Yuki Noguchi contributed to this report.

Qualcomm's Irwin Jacobs demonstrates cell technology on an American Airlines flight.

2005 The Washington Post Company


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