Cell-phone use could be cleared for takeoff

Forget the whiny toddler in 27F. The new bane of air travelers could soon be the chatty salesman with a fully charged mobile phone.

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday took the first small step toward allowing passengers to use their cellular phones and other wireless devices on airliners.

The proposal faces a long list of regulatory and technological — not to mention etiquette — challenges. It may take several years and several hundred million dollars before denizens of the middle seat can ask friends on the ground, "Can you hear me now?"

But the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration are cracking the cabin door on one of the few places where the electronic chirps that often portend uncomfortably intimate conversations still fall silent.

Reaction to the idea was as conflicted as most people's relationship with their mobile phones.

"We're entering uncharted territory here," said Jack Evans, president of the Air Transport Assn. of America Inc., an airline trade group. "Everyone can relate to a concern about sitting next to someone who decides to go through their little black book and call everyone they know in that high-pitched tone that people do when they're talking on their cellphone.

"On the other hand," Evans added, "people might be able to use that service to conduct business, and some people might like to have the security of knowing they can be reached in the air if there's an emergency."

Even those who might benefit most, the purveyors of mobile phones, acknowledge that the skies might not seem so friendly if half of coach is racking up roaming charges.

"We were just talking the other day about whether this was something we really wanted," said John Walls, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn., which represents the wireless industry. "I mean, would you want to be sandwiched between two yakkers on a trip from L.A. to New York?"

Maybe not. But given the degree of connectedness exhibited at Los Angeles International Airport, the idea of using cellphones on planes has a certain feeling of inevitability.

Some travelers scrambled to their gates Wednesday with headphone wires dangling over suit coats. Others passed the time tapping on laptops or chatting on flip phones at the curb.

"I travel a lot and it would be a lot cheaper than using the phones on the plane," said Sema Basol, a Manhattan Beach-based marketing consultant for nonprofits, as she tucked her cellphone into her carry-on luggage at bustling Terminal 1.

Basol, 52, said being able to use her mobile phone on board would help her keep in touch with her husband, who travels weekly to his job in San Jose.

Others, however, said they didn't relish the prospect of being squished between the window and a motor-mouthed neighbor.

"I say keep the ban," said Mark Barber, 21, who added that after backpacking around the world for the better part of the last year he was eager to get back to the green fields of his Devon, England, farm. "At least no one can complain. If one person can do it, they all can do it."

Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University and the author of a new book on cellphones, said the only good reason to bar use of the technology in flight was if there was a real risk to safety — something that has yet to be proved.

"I feel strongly that the right of people to have a quiet environment is no more pressing, or no more legitimate, than the right of people to conduct business and the right of people to have contact with their loved ones," Levinson said. He added that cellphones proved invaluable to passengers aboard the doomed Sept. 11 flights.

Besides, it may take years before passengers start searching for reception the way they do for pillows and blankets.

Cellphone signals generally peter out well below the cruising altitude of most jetliners.

The FCC, which regulates the nation's airwaves, addressed part of that problem Wednesday by setting aside a swath of spectrum for wireless communications between flights and phone networks on the ground.

Initially, that could be used for wireless Internet connections of the sort offered by coffeehouses.

"I think by the end of next year, we will have a fairly good idea how that link's going to be provided," said Bill Gordon, vice president for regulatory affairs at AirCell Inc., which makes the gear that would allow people to use their cellphones in flight.

With AirCell's system, passengers would connect first to a receiver on the plane. The receiver would then beam the call or Internet connection to AirCell's satellite dishes on the ground, which are connected to the regular phone network.

Airbus, the airplane manufacturing consortium based in Toulouse, France, tested a competing system this year that sends phone calls from its A320 jets to the ground via a satellite phone network. Airbus plans to enable in-flight cellphone calls in 2006.

Any scheme would have to pass the scrutiny of the FAA, which shares jurisdiction with the FCC. The FAA has a simple rule for electronic devices: They can be used during a flight only if the operator of the plane has determined that they won't interfere with the aircraft's navigation or communication systems.

That was a big question on the minds of passengers Wednesday.

"Is it safe?" asked Janet Phillips Ogburn, a merchandiser for a food brokerage in Carson City, Nev., who was visiting family in Los Angeles. "When you get on a plane they already ask you not to use a TV or a transistor radio or a remote control item."

Some pilots and aviation officials say a plane's electronic instruments are sensitive enough to be rattled by a barrage of mobile-phone transmissions. Yet anecdotes and assumptions are the only thing the FAA has to support its long-standing rule — there has been no scientific study.

A federal advisory board is working on one, however. The RTCA, formerly known as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, is in the midst of a 30-month look at portable electronics' effect on aircraft systems, with the results due in December 2005.

Installing the gear on thousands of planes could be prohibitively expensive for phone carriers and airlines. Individual airlines were noncommittal Wednesday, citing the potentially long time frame and daunting costs.

And then there's the question of rates. Anyone who has used the seatback phones available on many planes knows in-flight talk is anything but cheap — about $4 a minute. It is not clear how cellphone calls from planes would be priced.

Perhaps the stickiest problem, though, goes beyond the pocketbook.

Quipped FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps: "We here at the commission need to determine precisely what jurisdiction the FCC has over the annoying-seatmate issue."


Granelli reported from Washington and Oldham from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Jon Healey in Los Angeles contributed to this report.