RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Soon you may be able to chat at 20,000 feet

August 8, 2005

Ever since I was a kid, I resented other people's getting by w i t h s o m e t h i n g I didn't think I could get away with. The element of danger only adds to my Midwestern frustration at having to hold my tongue. Gas station customers smoking while fueling. Drivers cutting me off in traffic and not even noticing, thanks to the cell phones I can clearly see held to their ears. Fellow passengers doggedly talking on cell phones even as the airplane leaves the gate, and after being warned to shut them off. There's no aura of furtiveness about most prattlers on airplanes. They seem willing to die rather than stop chattering.

But will you die if you talk on a cell phone while the plane needs pristine instrumentation? I'm sure I'm not alone in assuming that the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have good reason to suspect cell phones of being killers when combined with a 747.

As it turns out, the FAA is actually thinking about dropping the restriction, and the airlines are considering it, too. It seems that, all these years, the FAA and the airlines have just been cautious, and that no one has yet proven that cell phone use causes awful things to happen to the jet.

I guess I was overly optimistic, hoping the ban was based on something other than dread, that perhaps somebody, somewhere had been able to divert money from a government study on mosquito mating habits and actually determined whether cell phones really did gum up jumbo jet electronics. It looks like such a study never happened.

In truth, I suspect the airlines and the FAA have other reasons for frowning on cell phone use aloft. And so do I.

Air travel is inherently stressful. The airlines have been reducing the distances between seats for years, trying to pack in more passengers as fuel costs rise and fare reductions kick the bottom out of revenue. As company after company has choked and fallen to its knees, the onboard amenities keep shrinking. The one thing that keeps many passengers quiescent during flights is the decent silence that drops between strangers who want to be left alone.

Allowing cell phones in flight would destroy that splendid isolation, as it does now in coffee shops, restaurants, offices, stores and cars. Normally, we can sidle away from talking heads, but not in an airplane. Most people talk more loudly on the phone than they realize. The majority of overheard conversations aren't even intriguing enough to make up for their intrusiveness.

Just imagine hours of flying time imprisoned with babbling hordes, and you can see why flight attendants aren't crazy about altering the policy. The Association of Flight Attendants ( has gone on record as opposing the abolition of the ban. The group commissioned a poll, in conjunction with the National Consumers League, that shows around 80 percent of those questioned think cell phone use would be disruptive and contribute unduly to the tension on board.

Airline marketers, on the other hand, are desperately courting the hard-core business flier, and many such customers are agitating to have their Blackberries and cell phones working in the air. They may, of course, think twice when they realize that the guy inches away in the next seat will have his cell phone working, too.

And that brings up the topic of security. An employee deep in conversation on a plane may not be conscious that two seatmates can hear every word, and so can those in the rows in front and behind him. He might not be within earshot of a bitter commercial rival, but he could be. Just the fact that the two are both on the same commercial flight can boost the probabilities that they're going to the same town, and perhaps to the same customer. There is even the more dreadful possibility that terrorists could use cell phones to coordinate their activities.

Of course, I might just be alarmist here, at least about the jangling cacophony of cell calls. I have to confess that the talkative scofflaws I mentioned earlier always seem to shut off their phones before takeoff, even without prompting from the flight attendant.

Some airlines already have seat-back cell phones you can use by the minute, and I have rarely seen anyone actually use one. Granted, they're clunky, hard to use, rather pricey, and bereft of the kind of sound quality we've become accustomed to having.

But perhaps there's an alternate explanation. It could be that my fellow travelers, bless their brutalized little souls, have instinctively decided to maintain the code of silence. If one breaks from the pack, others must follow, so by denying themselves even the comfort of a single cell call, they are keeping a precarious balance and a semblance of tranquility.

Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at
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