By Travel columnist
updated 1/11/2006 3:33:54 PM ET 2006-01-11T20:33:54

Ah, cell phones — the gadgets that are so dear to our hearts, pockets and purses. I don’t know how we ever survived air travel without them. It’s so easy now to keep in touch with our loved ones and colleagues — to inflict on them all our boredom as we sit at the gate, all our worry about tight connections, even that sudden panic about the coffeepot back home (Did I turn it off?).

People used to strike up conversations with real people at the airport. Now they walk around with one hand glued to the side of their heads talking into little microphones, saying things like “Yeah, the airplane’s pretty big,” and “Did Lulu get her breakfast?”

But cell phones are here to stay. So, in the humble manner that befits my station as a flight attendant, I offer 10 tips for cell-phone use in and around the airport.

  1. Call later. Fact: Cell-phone use has not been proven to interfere with sensitive instruments in the cockpit — at least not in any way that would cause a major disruption. Nevertheless, there are times when it is a bad idea to use a cell phone and others when it is outright forbidden. For example, you cannot use a cell phone when going through customs, during the safety demo or at any time in flight. Not that my phone works mid-flight anyway, but I am sure there are phones that do by now.
  2. Check your ring tones. Everyone has his own way of being alerted to an incoming call - be it funny, annoying, loud or silently vibratory. Just two rules here. First, be courteous to your fellow travelers by keeping your phone nearby and turned to low (or vibrate). Second, don’t be an idiot. A man at O’Hare airport was arrested for having a ring tone of someone screaming “Bomb!” followed by the sounds of an explosion and laughter in the background. He pleaded stupidity and got off easily, only missing his flight.
  3. Censor yourself. I don’t know about you, but I find myself tuning in to the conversations taking place in cramped public places. So if your cell-phone conversation includes personal information, try not to broadcast it to the world. I was once in a crowded gate area when a cell caller described in detail his recent colonic irrigation. Way too much information.
  4. Beware the automated operator. More and more often these days, customer-service operators turn out to be computers. Inquire about a flight to Boston, and you may get information on a flight to Narita instead. Dealing with tone-deaf computers can turn your good mood sour. My wife is the sweetest woman, but put her on the phone with a computer that can’t handle her English accent, and you have a fire-breathing dragon on your hands. If you find yourself in a similar situation, head to a corner because the yelling could be quite jarring to innocent bystanders. Computer: “I think you said Narita.” Wife: “Boston, you stupid f-ing computer, Boston!!!!
  5. Don’t be ear-itating. If you have one of those streamlined earpieces, realize that people may think you are talking to yourself — or to them. It’s my job to answer questions at the airport, and I’m forever getting snippety responses of “No, not you!” from folks whose earpieces I never saw. I think these people should have a neon placard on their foreheads saying, “No, I’m not crazy, I’m on the phone.”
  6. Degadgetize. There is not a cell phone in existence that can go through security without setting off the metal detector. So if you usually clip yours to an inside pocket, holster it on your side, or keep it tucked away in some nether region of your clothing, do yourself (and the many people in line behind you) a favor and set it free when you first get in line.
  7. Call before you board. Maybe the reason they don’t want you using your cell phone in flight is to make you use the pay phone on the airplane instead. Holy cow, have you taken a look at the prices? They are around $10 for the connection fee and $10 a minute! The way airfares are these days, that phone call could cost you more than the actual flight.
  8. Center of the universe. If you are one of those people who can’t walk and talk at the same time, then get out of the way. There are probably hundreds of people behind you trying to get to a gate or to the baggage claim. Just head for a pay phone and chat on your cell phone from there. No one is using those pay phones anyway.
  9. Call-waiting areas. Realize that many airports have areas for people to wait in their cars until you have landed and are ready to be picked up. This prevents the grumpy airport traffic cop from yelling at them as they crawl along at one mile per hour in the Arrivals lane trying to look inconspicuous. So do make a call after you touch down, but try to save the long version of your trip for the ride home.
  10. Don’t leave home without it. Even if you’re going to a place where your phone won’t work, or you don’t want to be contacted, bring your cell phone along anyway. It probably has an alarm clock that could come in handy, or a game that can pass the time. And remember, when you don’t want to talk to someone anymore, you can always hang up and blame it on the connection.

Cell phones have changed air travel a lot, even in the airplane cabin, where they have dramatically cut down on the goodbyes at the end of a flight. Now approximately eight out of every 10 passengers exiting the plane are engrossed in very important conversations and merely nod goodbye to me. Luckily, I don’t get paid per “Buh-Bye.”

News flash: Legislation is now in the works to allow cell-phone use in flight. Can you imagine 300 people in a metal tube rambling on and on? Do you think this is a good idea or a bad idea? Take the online poll or send me your cell thoughts. Or, you can text message me from your phone on … No, just joking.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him. Visit Tripso's forums!

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