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Fly the cell-free skies … while you still can

Commentary: I’m certainly for more technology on airplanes, but can’t help but feel that cell phones may be better left on the ground. By Adam Hunter.
Fly the cell-free skies … while you still can
/ Source: Special to

I’m on a flight back to New York from Florida when about halfway through listening to some new music I uploaded onto my iPod from iTunes, I’m tapped on the shoulder by a flight attendant. She politely reminds me that we’re about to begin our decent and if I could kill the music, that would be great. And while I’m at it — could I please put my seat back in an upright position, stop playing “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” on my PSP and close the Powerbook G4 sitting on my open tray table, currently showing the first season of “Lost”? Grudgingly, I comply with the familiar ritual, because, as much as I like seeing all the mischief those plane crash survivors from “Lost get into, I have no desire to end up like them.

I’ve often wondered about the strange, seemingly arbitrary rules governing technology allowed on airplanes. Could some kid playing “Mario” in row 23 really cause the plane to go haywire? Will some geek’s PDA force us into a freefall? And if that does happen, how can we make one last call to our loved ones without the use of our cell phones?

Luckily, the Federal Communications Commission has realized that whether or not someone’s Tamagachi causes a plane to go down, the public should be able to use up their anytime minutes while flying the friendly skies. In December 2004, the FCC proposed “relax[ing] its current ban on the use of cellular telephones on airborne aircraft.” (Seemingly negating the message to kids written on their , which warns that if kids use cell phones in planes, “the airplane may not go the right direction or fly at the right height, or they may even crash!”) Of course, the FCC may not allow every type of cell phone to be used. Zack Morris, you can leave that behemoth at home.

But while I’m certainly for more technology on airplanes (fly Northwest, which has cut every amenity but seatbelts, and you’ll see why), I can’t help but feel that cell phones may be better left on the ground. What the FCC proposal means, of course, is that sometime in the not-so-distant future, it’s very likely that you and I will be sitting next to someone yelling at his soon-to-be ex-wife, customer service representative, or any of the other people who I routinely overhear getting bawled out on cell phones as I walk through the streets of Manhattan.

How am I supposed to play “Minesweeper” with someone chattering away?

I wonder if the FCC would be considering their proposal if any of them spent time on a commuter train. There are few things worse in life than traveling into the city on a packed New Jersey Transit train at 7 a.m. while the woman next to you recites her itinerary three times because the reception keeps cutting off, and someone else’s cell phone blares the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” ringtone every five minutes. “Oh is that mine?” they ask. It always is.

Close quarters, cabins with no escape are no place for irritating noises. People are already trying to get out of planes in mid-flight. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority got it half right, threatening to fine anybody whose iPod could be heard five feet away. But they’re also considering proposals to bring cell service to subway stations. Is no place free from the reach of Big Telecom?

People who support the FCC’s move say that in this post-9/11 world, we need to be able to use our cell phones on planes. But… if anything like 9/11 happens, we’re going to use our cell phones anyway, damn the rules. That’s what happened on 9/11. People turned on their cell phones. If such an emergency happened in the future, people could do the same thing. Right?

It calms me as I look outside my window and see the city of Newark come into view through the clouds. There’s always something serene about the moments before landing.. All around, laptops are closed, earphones are tucked into pockets, pocket PCs are sheathed. And at once, a mellow calm descends; I’m left with only the whirr of the landing gear and white noise of the cabin air conditioning. And I think to myself, maybe we should ban all of it — all those technological devices which threaten to distract and annoy our fellow travelers. Maybe flight should be a time of silence and inner reflection, a time when we’re disconnected from the world. Birds don’t have cell phones, maybe we shouldn’t either.

Now someone tell that kid to quit playing “Star Wars” before he gets us all killed.

Adam Hunter is a freelance writer living in New York. His blog is .