By Travel writer
Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/4/2007 8:44:43 AM ET 2007-04-04T12:44:43

Quick, somebody call Samuel Jackson.

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Now that he’s successfully dispatched the fanged minions of “Snakes on a Plane,” perhaps Sam has the time to take on an even bigger threat to the flying public. It doesn’t hiss, and it doesn’t slither, but like a suitcase of snakes, it’s a risk that reveals itself with an insidious dissonance that could easily mutate into a terrible menace.

Close your eyes and you can almost hear it: “Are you still there? Hello, can you hear me? So, anyway, he was really cute, and I’d had a few drinks, and, you know…”

OK, so a python in the overhead bin may be scarier than a seatmate with a cell phone, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a frighteningly close call. And if recent developments are any indication, the latter is far more likely.

A bit of background
When the FCC proposed loosening its ban on the use of cell phones in flight in December 2004, it opened the lid on a snake pit of commentary and technical concerns. Experts debated the effects on cockpit operations and cellular networks; flight attendants fretted about a potential rise in air-rage incidents; and peace-seeking passengers envisioned a racket of ringtones, keypad beeps, and chit chat that we’d really rather not hear.

In fact, when the FCC asked for public commentary, more than 8,000 people responded, and few had anything good to say about the idea. A subsequent poll by the National Consumer League and a flight attendants group revealed that only 21 percent of respondents said it was time to let the inflight yak-fest begin.

Luckily for the other 79 percent of us, the FCC proposal won’t become reality any time soon, especially since the FAA has final authority over air travel. That agency, bless its aeronautic heart, has no plans to open the stratosphere to cell phones. Even so, the concept of phone-free civility in flight may still be at risk.

Out with the old, in with the new
Of course, inflight dialing has been an option since the mid-1980s, when the first seatback phones were installed in commercial aircraft. Fortunately, no one ever used them due to their pricey fees, scratchy service, and those retractable cords that never reached far enough in the first place.

All of which may explain why Verizon Airfone, the current provider of seatback service, announced in June that it was getting out of the inflight phone business by the end of this year. The company has said it plans to focus on its core business, but the fact remains: Most passengers would rather reach for their barf bag than one of those phones.

Clearly, though -- and with apologies to Henry David Thoreau -- nature abhors a vacuum, and Verizon’s soon-to-be-abandoned bandwidth was unlikely to remain vacant for long. This summer, in fact, two companies -- Colorado-based AirCell Inc., and Live TV LLC, a division of JetBlue Airways Corp. -- were the high bidders in an FCC auction that they hope will allow them to offer WiFi access in flight by early next year.

The idea is to take advantage of so-called “pico cells,” smoke-detector-sized units that will collect signals from passengers’ personal wireless devices and transmit them en masse to ground-based networks. That way, individual devices can be operated at a lower, and presumably, safer power level.

So, what kind of devices? Initially, the service will allow passengers to use their laptops, PDAs, and portable gaming units to surf the Web, transmit text messages, and battle the video-game villains of their choice. At this point, phone service will have to await further regulatory approval, but if it’s ever okayed, rest assured the companies involved will be only too happy to oblige.

And they won’t be alone. In Europe, Air France expects to take delivery of its first cell-phone-ready plane early next year. Meanwhile, two other airlines -- TAP of Portugal and bmi, a low-cost British carrier -- have announced that they’ll offer limited cell-phone service some time in 2007, as well. Fees, which haven’t been announced yet, are expected to be comparable to current international roaming rates.

Technology marches on
In the meantime, you may still want to consider carrying earplugs or noise-canceling headphones thanks to the latest development in the battle over airborne blabbing: VoIP, which routes phone calls through the Internet -- e.g., your seatmate’s laptop -- not via phone lines or cellular systems. If inflight Internet access is on the way, can VoIP phone calls be far behind?

That remains to be seen, but I, for one, don’t want to wait to find out. That’s why I’m hoping Samuel Jackson, scourge of airborne enemies everywhere, can help fight this impending menace. Otherwise, at some point, the rest of us will have to stand up and growl in his honor, "Enough is enough. I’ve had it with these mother— ... "

Snakes on a plane or a seatmate with a cell phone? Personally, I’ll take the snakes.

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