June 1, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Cell phones to take flight

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to respond to far more dire circumstances, as was the case with Chicago resident Matthew Downs on Sept. 11, 2001.

Downs, a software salesman, learned of the terrorist attacks while on a commercial flight returning home from South America. The captain explained that "terrorist attacks on airplanes" meant they were making an emergency landing. People on board using cell phones soon discovered the true nature of the day's events.

"We found out from people using their phones that the World Trade Center was hit, and some unspecified area in Washington," Downs recalls.

Why do the Federal Aviation Administration and the FCC think they can ease restrictions?
For one, there's a lot of interest among cell phone operators to sell calls on board a flight. Just as they are on trains, in cars, buses, subways and on ferries, an operator's audience is trapped for anywhere from a few minutes to--in a transcontinental flight--12 hours.

Verizon Airfone, for instance, which operates seat-back phones on scores of planes, has indicated that in order to meet the needs of consumers on commercial aircraft, it plans solutions that would use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which are both wireless Internet technologies found in a growing number of cell phones.

What's changed since 1991?
Since the ban went into effect, cellular infrastructure has changed greatly, and promising technical innovations have taken place in areas of power control, as well as signal filter and antenna design. The advent of smart antennas, which are much more efficient at broadcasting signals, mean cell phones can operate on the very low-power threshold the FCC has tentatively set.

Pico Cells emerge as one of the new technology alternatives. A pico cell is, in effect, a low-power cellular base station installed on an aircraft to steer cell phone conversations to passengers and crew. The signal travels from the handset to the pico cell, which then relays it to the ground via a separate air-to-ground link, typically a satellite band.

In theory there's no threat of interfering with signals below, because the conversations are limited to the aircraft. Even better, pico cells can limit just how much power someone's cell phone signal has. Qualcomm performed a proof-of-concept flight in July 2004, with much fanfare. Other in-flight tests have been conducted by mobile network specialist AIRINC and Norwegian phone operator Telenor.

What are the drawbacks of pico cells?
Pico cells have some dangers; one well-known one has to do with if they should fail while in flight. There's significant risk of airborne cell phones beginning to search for a terrestrial base station and causing interference.

How does U.S. law enforcement view the cell phone ban?
U.S. law enforcement officials believe terrorists might have an easier time remotely detonating bombs and coordinating hijackings with accomplices on the ground, inside other airborne craft, or on the same flight, according to comments from the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Collectively, the group objects to any loosening of the FAA rules.

What personal electronic devices can you use on an airplane?
You may not use any electronic device on any aircraft, except for portable voice recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electronic shavers, according to FAA guidelines.

There is a big caveat, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. If an airline can show the FAA that an electronic device does not interfere with aviation, then it's allowed on board. Laptops, not part of the FAA guideline, are one example. Most airlines remain conservative, however, in the technology they allow on board. American Airlines does not, for instance, allow Global Positioning System, or GPS, devices.

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22 comments

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This is acceptable on one condition
Aircraft will have to be segregated.

The plane must be divided into "Cell" and "No Cell" sections. I flat out refuse to have to listen to some drunk college girl yammer on about just how drunk she is, who is trying to speak over the Japanese business man, who is trying to speak over the twelve million screaming babies, who are trying to scream over the consistent drone of the engines.

Or orient the pico cell such that it's really only accessible at the back of the plane in a confined room. Either way, get them out of the main cabin.

People who demand the ability to use their cells on a plane should also pay a premium for their fare. Being that connected while you're six miles above the ground is a convenience, not a right.
Posted by Christopher Hall (1205 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Dude, GET A LIFE!
C'mon! If you need that much privacy and peace, get your whiny
butt out of society. You seem like a little twirp that has to have
everything your way or else you whine like a little girl. I bet you
were an only child that never learned to play well with others.
Sheesh.
Posted by (57 comments )
Link Flag
Not Possible
I mean, even though you are sitting in a "no-cell" zone, you can still hear people shouting, cursing, whining, laughing and crying on their phones. My suggestion? Listen to some music while you are on the plane, or just watch movies with headsets :)
Posted by 201293546946733175101343322673 (722 comments )
Link Flag
through the roof
If someone needs to use a cell phone they should use the built in ones on the back of the seat. Since it costs $2 a minute, people don't use them for stupid chit-chat. So keep those phones with their deterrant to pointless talking and continue the ban on cell phones.

One thing is certain - while on cell phones, people loose all sense of common etiquite. We know that to be true on the ground, on the train, everywhere else except the plane, because people haven't been talking on the plane before. As soon as they start everyone will see. No headphone or earplug will help.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Link Flag
It's insane
It's insane that I can't use my iPod until the plane reaches 10,000
feet. Is this tiny little device going to bring down the aircraft? I
think not. These airlines are a bit uptight (or more fairly, the FAA).
Use some reason people.
Posted by (57 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Maybe......
FAA is worring that, if enough people are using iPods on the plane, people's hummings and singings will distract the pilots? :)
Posted by 201293546946733175101343322673 (722 comments )
Link Flag
NO to inflight cell phone use
We're continually surrounded by cell phone use in stores, restaurants, buses, etc. I fly at least once a month for business. I've learned to appreciate the relative quite while on a flight. I find it's a gift to do some work on my laptop, read, watch a movie, listen to music, think, plan or just relax. I can't understand why people think they need to be connected ALL the time.
Posted by ScottRay (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Cell phone taps, & big brother
At least one of the American flights that hit the WTC had a flight attendant telling what was happening to her ground contact at the airline. Barbara Olsen, wife of then solicitor general at D of Justice, left message for him before impact. And the United that crashed in PA also had a lot of ground contact. One of the reasons we know significant details of what was really going on.

Would a tap on these with ability to terminate contact have given us more information? If you believe this I have a railroad between LAX nnd Honolulu that I will sell cheap.

Too bad common sense takes leave in homeland (in)security!

It would be interesting to get some comments from the 9-11 commission members on this one!
Posted by bigduke (78 comments )
Link Flag
what an awful idea
i can't think of anything worse than allowing cell phone usage on a plane. people drive me nuts already just by using it while boarding, they have to be much louder so they can be heard over the engine noise and the others around them.

the plane is a great place to read or get work done and that won't be at all possible with some loudmouth yelling into his phone to be heard over the engine roar.
Posted by taxedToDeath (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Top 5 conversation annoyances
It seems that we are all in agreement at the annoyance factor of cell phone conversations. Here are my top 5, what are yours?

1) Cell phone conversation.
2) Those who have a habit of making eye contact with every stranger around while they talk, and speaking real loud so that everyone can hear.
3) Those who can't stop talking and very rarely let the other person speak (I think that one's a disease or something).
4) Vulgar conversation (save it for the fishing trip will you?).
5) Constant outbursts of loud laughter.
Posted by Juster444 (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Guilty conscience
> Those who have a habit of making eye contact with every stranger around while they talk

That's because they know they're being annoying. :)
Posted by Anonymous1234567890 (53 comments )
Link Flag
cell phone usage on planes
There was an interesting article in the New York Times several weeks ago. A recent study revealed that close to 25% of callers really weren't speaking to anyone at all! Apparently some people are desperate for attention.
Posted by Tucsontony (2 comments )
Link Flag
No to cell phones in flight!
In my opinion, people that insist on exposing others to their phone calls in public whether they be in stores, trains, planes (NO!) are compensating for some form of inadequecy. That's the only thing I can think of.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
some form of inadequecy
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.analogstereo.com/jaguar_xj8_owners_manual.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.analogstereo.com/jaguar_xj8_owners_manual.htm</a>
Posted by George Cole (314 comments )
Link Flag
This is a bad idea
I catch a commuter bus at 5:30am and ride an hour to work and have to put up with these self important people who feel they must carry on a cell phone conversation the whole way. I do not even want to think of the frustrations of having to put up with this on a 5-8 hour flight.
If the FCC passes this, it will just be an added frustration along with rude airline employees, bad (if any) food, and uncomfortable seats. You add all this up and sadly there is the potential for a physical altercation at 30,000 feet.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
There's a bit more to it
The most critical phases of flight are below 10,000 feet. You are asked to keep your electronic devices off not only to keep any interference from occurring with navigation/communication equipment but so that passengers can hear any necessary announcements from the cockpit or cabin crews. More emergency landings begin below 10,000 feet than any other phase of flight.
Posted by (1 comment )
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