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Cell phones dont work high altitudes

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"It's unclear when or even if cell service will come to airline cabins....Cell phones usually don't work at high altitudes."

Posted 12/16/2004 11:15 PM Updated 12/22/2004 4:50 PM

Cell phones in the air: Convenience or curse?
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

Just when air travel seems to have become our national gripe, along comes a possibility to make us appreciate flight as we now know it: A cabin full of people talking, loudly and simultaneously, on their cell phones.

Hear the prayer of frequent flier Bill Kalmar of Lake Orion, Mich.: "There are so few places these days where we can escape cell phones, pagers, BlackBerrys and CNN. Please let my airline flight be the last comfortable, quiet cocoon that is left to me where I can get lost in my own thoughts."

Yet consider also the petition of Steven Silverman of Westfield, N.J.: "For the road warrior who calls his Samsonite his home, the use of cell phones on airplanes would be the first wish on the list for Santa Claus."

Silverman's wish is at least several years from being granted, because the movement to end the ban on airborne cell phones still faces several hurdles.

But the Federal Communications Commission's decision Wednesday to solicit public comment on the issue has ignited a debate. Would the electronically connected airline cabin feel like your den —— or like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange? Is stratospheric cell phone service a nightmare or a dream?

It depends on the traveler.

Imagine you're in seat 33B. The person on your left extols the airliner as a sort of flying monastery — a place to read, contemplate, rest, and retreat from the world below. The one on the right laments hours of lost productivity, missed opportunities and work that must be made up on the ground — all for lack of connectivity.

Early opinion favors the monastery. The FCC has been barraged with hundreds of e-mails opposing phones on planes. Most of the e-mailers "believe that use of devices that don't involve talking are fine, but are not looking forward to the possibility of hearing more conversations than they do now," says Lauren Patrich, a spokeswoman for the FCC wireless bureau.

It's unclear when or even if cell service will come to airline cabins.

The FCC must be satisfied there's no interference with cell phone service on the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration must be satisfied there's no interference with the airplane's navigation and electrical systems.

The airlines must be satisfied there's a profit.

The move being considered by the FCC is part of a broader trend to allow airline passengers the communication devices that surround (and sometimes annoy) them in their homes, offices and cars. A few airlines already offer moderately fast Internet connections, and the commission moved Wednesday to permit high-speed Internet connections. Air travelers could be routinely surfing the Web by 2006.

Passengers are now allowed to use electronic devices without radio transmitters — such as video games, CD players and laptops — above 10,000 feet. Some airlines also offer satellite TV. But things like cell phones and pagers are banned from takeoff to touchdown.

The only way passengers on domestic flights can communicate with the ground is on a type of phone found on about 1,500 jets, usually built into seat backs. The phones aren't very popular because of complaints about high cost and poor reception.

Cell phones usually don't work at high altitudes. When they do, they simultaneously communicate with hundreds of cell towers on the ground, clogging networks.

But it's now possible to place a small cell phone tower on each airplane to receive signals from passengers' cell phones and relay them, directly or by satellite, to designated towers on the ground.

And this can be done, according to manufacturers and airlines, without disrupting cell service below or the plane's own navigation or electrical systems.

The tab: $100,000 per plane

The new cell systems would cost about $100,000 per plane but might give the financially-pressed airlines a new source of revenue based on a per-call surcharge.

If the FCC eventually approves passenger use of cell phones, the FAA still must rule on their safety.

The issue of radio frequency interference has become more critical as jets rely increasingly on sophisticated computers and electronic devices. For example, many planes now use the Global Positioning Satellite system, and the weak signal from satellites in space is easily distorted by other radio broadcasts.

Also, studies show that, under some conditions, cell phone signals can interfere with a jet's electronics, primarily the delicate radio receivers that pilots use to navigate or to guide them to runways. Although the new cell system is designed to avoid that problem, an FAA panel is still investigating.

But there is no documented case of a problem caused by an electronic device in flight. The FAA, airlines and jet manufacturers say that they've investigated numerous complaints by pilots and others; in several cases, Boeing purchased from passengers the same devices suspected of causing problems and used them in tests.

"We have never ever been able to duplicate the interference," says David Carson, who co-chairs the FAA-sanctioned group studying whether cell phones and other electronic devices are safe on planes.

The cost of connectivity

So far, no airline has applied for permission to provide cell phone service. "We don't even know if we're going to do this yet," says Billy Sanez, a spokesman for American Airlines. He insists there's a demand, but only up to a point: "Our customers don't want to listen to 250 conversations at once."

The prospect of a flying chatterbox inspires even some of the most disenchanted air travelers to conclude that these are the good old days. "There goes my personal oasis in the sky," moans Richard Catalano, a Cleveland retail food sales rep who logs 250,000 air miles a year.

Randy Peterson, founder of the FlyerTalk Web site, used to agitate for cell calls in flight. But since the rules were loosened — to allow, for instance, phone use as planes taxi to the gate — what he's heard has convinced him it's a bad idea.

He estimates 60% of passengers get on their phones immediately upon landing and only 1% say anything worth saying: "If I hear one more woman calling someone to say, 'We got in three minutes late,' or 'It's raining here.' "

Those who liken an airline cabin to a library in Shangri-La find cell phone legalization troubling for at least three reasons:

•Noise from inside the cabin.

Welcome to frequent flier Bill Kalmar's nightmare: a three-hour flight to Florida on which he is seated between two characters he calls First Time Flier Freda and Very Important Business Person Bob.

"For three hours you will be subjected to Freda's recitation of her drive to the airport, her parking dilemma, being wanded in security, the price of airport food and the lack of space on the plane," he predicts. "This would be accompanied by Business Person Bob conducting a meeting with his staff detailing his strategy for a stock repurchase."

"I'm not a cranky guy," says Bernie Williams, a pharmaceuticals consultant who lives near Indianapolis and commutes to work weekly outside New York City. "But all those stupid rings make me want to reprogram people's phones for them."

•Intrusions from outside the cabin.

When the cabin door closes, it severs the traveler's electronic leash to the outside word.

Michael Loguercio of Ridge, N.Y., travels frequently to sell management software systems to insurance companies. "Sometimes the flight is the only time on a trip that I can truly relax without the annoyance of my cell phone. ... You're constantly in touch with the office, the kids, the wife. Sometimes you want to order a drink, sit back and say, 'You know what? You can't bother me for two hours.' "

•Cabin behavior.

"Passengers currently pay little or no attention to the flight attendants, and would pay less (if they had cell phones). This becomes a safety hazard," says Ira Dale, West Coast regional manager of LifeNet, which provides organs and issues for transplant operations.

Brad Thomas, who travels the western states on business for Kodak (averaging 2,700 cell phone minutes a month) agrees: "I can't imagine the trouble getting everyone seated, buckled in, and so forth. People don't listen to directions for stowing their bags as it is."

Richard Roeper, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, predicts cell use disputes will escalate — from complaint to argument to fight to arrest.

'A happier place'

But the generation that wanted its MTV now demands cell phones in flight. "One of the things in being a successful road warrior is to multi-task at all times," says Silverman, a sales and marketing executive who flies about 80,000 miles a year.

"When you get on an airplane, it becomes somewhat frustrating that you are out of contact," he says. "People need to stay in touch. If airlines reversed the rule, the world might be a happier place — at least for some of us."

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger group, says audio and data links would "make business travelers more efficient, and wile away the time for a lot of other passengers. This is all the wave of the future."

Even critics of cell phones aloft admit they probably are inevitable. "People use their cell phones in a variety of inappropriate places. Why should aircraft by any different?" asks Richard Aboulafia, an airline industry analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "We've seen the erosion of civil society everywhere else."

The chatter might not be too bad. George Larson, editor of Air & Space magazine, says airline cabins are fairly good noise absorbers, and the engines and ventilation system provide a steady white noise that muffles individual sounds.

Some ideas to tame the airborne cell phone are being discussed:

•Time limits. Each cell phone user would be restricted to a certain number of calls or minutes. Williams sees a problem, however: "Short of posting snipers in front and in back, it's gonna be difficult to enforce." Peterson agrees: "Guys I know, they'll be calling from under the seats, in the bathrooms."

•Calling hours. Phones could be used only during certain periods, such as the first and last hour of a trans-continental flight. But, again, who would enforce it? "The crew is there to fly us from point A to point B," says Peterson.

•Quiet sections. Some Amtrak trains have "quiet cars." Airlines might similarly designate certain rows or sections of the cabin. But the sound of 100 people talking travels, and in this case it won't have far to go. As the Motley Fool Web site observed, "Not even that window seat in the back row will be able to save you now."

•Phone booths. They may be almost extinct down below, but soundproof compartments could be constructed in the back of planes — albeit at the cost of precious space.

•Earphones. Kalmar again: "On my last flight I wore a set of sound-deadening earphones, and turned off the sound around me, including the engines. Perhaps the airlines should give them to everyone sitting next to someone using a cell phone." But at $100 a set, that seems unlikely.

•Cellular education. Many people speak too loudly into their cell phones ("cell yell"), partly because users suspect something so small must lack amplification, and partly because the phones lack the aural feedback of land phones that let people know how loudly they're talking. Now imagine the caller who also feels a need to shout because the other party is 30,000 feet below.

Carol Page, founder of, says cell callers must learn they'll be more easily understood if they tone it down.

Finally, some people would try to escape the din by flying first class. That's where Michael Loguercio was sitting this week when he called to discuss the phone issue. "I'm hoping people up here will have more courtesy," he said. "In back, it'll be a free for all."

Further conversation would have to wait, he said: "They're about to close the door." But at least he was whispering.

Contributing: Alan Levin, Kitty Yancey, Paul Davidson, Barbara Hansen, Laura Bly, Dan Reed, wires.

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