December 10, 2004
Cellphones Aloft: The Inevitable Is Closer
By KEN BELSON and MICHELINE MAYNARD
The day may finally be coming when you will be allowed to make calls
on your own cellphone from an airliner. Trouble is, so will the
passengers sitting on either side of you, and in front and in back of
you, as well.
Federal regulators plan next week to begin considering rules that
would end the official ban on cellphone use on commercial
flights. Technical challenges and safety questions remain. But if the
ban is lifted, one of the last cocoons of relative social silence
would disappear, forcing strangers to work out the rough etiquette of
involuntary eavesdropping in a confined space.
"For some people, the idea of being able to pick up their phone is
going to be liberating; for some it's going to drive them crazy," said
Addison Schonland, a travel industry consultant at the Innovation
Analysis Group in La Jolla, Calif. "Can you imagine 200 people having
a conversation at once? There's going to be a big market for
The always-on-the-road business travelers may become the worst
offenders, predicted Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst with
the Yankee Group and a frequent flier. "Businessmen will now compete
with toddlers for the title of 'most annoying in the airplane,' "
Mr. Entner said.
It may be years before cellphones become widely used in the skies. To
begin with, conventional cellphones, besides raising concerns about
interfering with cockpit communications, typically do not work at
altitudes above 10,000 feet or so.
But some airlines have already begun their own tests of technology
meant to make cellphone use feasible at 35,000 feet. They know that
the seatback phones they now offer, costing $1.99 a minute or more,
have never really caught on.
The airlines also know that, while illegal, surreptitious cellphone
use at lower altitudes is already common. Airline attendants have
caught some passengers using cellphones in airplane lavatories, and
others have been spotted huddled in their seats, whispering into their
cupped hands. For that matter, the use of BlackBerry hand-held e-mail
devices is also rampant, if sub rosa, despite their also being banned
Famously, some passengers' emergency use of cellphones played a
significant role in the final minutes of the hijacked United Airlines
Flight 93 before it crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., on
Sept. 11, 2001.
A major federal effort to revisit the rules will begin next Wednesday
at a Federal Communications Commission meeting, where the agency is
expected to approve two measures. One, an order that is expected to be
adopted, would try to introduce more price competition among phone
companies to offer telephone and high-speed Internet services from the
seatback and end-of-aisle phones that are now on many planes.
The second measure will begin the regulatory process of considering
whether there are technical solutions to some of the current obstacles
to passengers' using their own mobile phones on planes.
Safety will be a major consideration in any rule changes. The Federal
Aviation Administration and Boeing, the nation's largest builder of
airliners, both support the F.C.C.'s ban, arguing that cellphones can
interfere with navigation systems.
In fact, European newspapers widely reported that use of a cellphone
contributed to the crash of a Crossair commuter plane in 2000. LX
Flight 498, carrying 10 passengers and crew members, was bound for
Dresden when it crashed outside Zurich minutes after it took off,
killing all on board. Officially, the reason for the crash remains
unknown. But news reports at the time said a passenger apparently took
a cellphone call at the same time that the pilot engaged the autopilot
controls. The plane subsequently went into a dive.
Despite such questions, airlines have begun their own tests of whether
cellphone use can be made feasible. A test last July by American
Airlines, the nation's biggest, allowed the use of conventional
cellphones to place and receive calls by way of a picocell -- a
miniature cell tower the size of a pizza box. The system was installed
by the wireless equipment maker Qualcomm inside the jet.
The picocell linked to several antennas inside a cable that gathered
signals from passengers' cellphones and sent them all to a small
satellite dish, no bigger than a laptop computer, on top of the
plane. From there, the calls were beamed to an orbiting satellite,
which sent the calls back to special cell stations linked to phone
networks on earth.
"It's only a matter of time before we have cellphones on planes," said
Scott Becker, senior vice president of Qualcomm's Wireless Systems
division. "A lot of the airlines are more open to looking at it now,
and people are getting used to using their phones everywhere."
Many industry executives say the type of technology tested by American
Airlines and Qualcomm is particularly promising because, by funneling
all calls through a single communications path, it will be more
feasible for the airlines and carriers to track and bill the
calls. (The airlines assume they would charge an access fee beyond
whatever the customer's own wireless carrier assesses.)
The transmission system is also more efficient than using conventional
cellular technology, which would require many in-flight phones to
continually search for cell towers on the ground. And because calls
will be beamed to satellites and then back to earth, passengers will
be able to talk while flying over water and other areas where there
are few cell towers below. Also, fliers would have the added advantage
of being able to receive calls as well as make them.
None of this will happen soon, though. Participants in the tests, as
well as members of the committee appointed by the F.A.A. to study the
various technologies, do not expect any resolution to the debate for
at least another two years. A crucial assessment, by the United States
Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, will not be completed
until at least 2007.
Others note that a technology already exists that could eventually
enable passengers to call from the sky: Internet phone software that
runs over high-speed data lines. So far, passengers on some non-United
States airlines can pay to use high-speed Internet connections in
flight through a service called Connexion by Boeing. In theory, once
online with a laptop, a passenger could use Internet phone software
and a headset to make calls. But so far, the Internet service is
offered by only a handful of airlines like Lufthansa and JAL on a few
long-haul flights, and Connexion by Boeing is not promoting the system
as a way to make phone calls.
Given the cash-short airline industry's need for income, though, many
travel industry analysts say that -- whatever the regulatory and
technical hurdles -- phone calls from the sky are inevitable.
"They will be a revenue stream," predicted Terry Wiseman, publisher of
Airfax.com, an online newsletter. "If the price is low, and if you can
get billed directly through your carrier, people are going to use the
Which is what worries some frequent travelers. "The last thing I want
is a bunch of jabbering business geeks," said Paul Saffo, a technology
industry consultant who travels 200,000 miles a year on United
Airlines and said that flying was his only escape from e-mail and
phone calls. "The only quiet time I get is when I fly. It's my
It will be up to the airline industry, and its passengers, to work out
the new terms of engagement, even if the results are as uneven as in
other travel industries. Around metropolitan New York City, for
example, the main commuter railroads allow unfettered use of
cellphones -- to the annoyance of tens of thousands of nonchattering
commuters a day -- but on many East Coast Amtrak trains there are
typically one or more "quiet cars" where the phones are prohibited.
Rich Salter, an in-flight electronics expert with the Salter Group, a
consulting firm in Irvine, Calif., said there was already an airline
industry proposal circulating that would restrict phone use to only
certain portions of each flight. "Maybe the old 'No Smoking' sign
could be used as a 'No Talking' sign," he said.
Stephen Labaton, in Washington; Matt Richtel, in San Francisco; and
Christopher Elliott, in Orlando, Fla., contributed reporting for this
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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