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Cell phones in the sky: Not now, not ever!

Score one for sanity in the skies. After two years of study and thousands of comments, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to maintain its ban on the use of cell phones in flight.

Score one for sanity in the skies.

After two years of study and thousands of comments, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to maintain its ban on the use of cell phones in flight.

Reportedly, the reasoning behind the decision was that the agency is still uncertain as to whether or not cell phone signals interfere with cockpit operations and/or ground-based cellular networks.

Personally, I don’t think the decision had anything to do with either issue. Instead, I think the FCC commissioners realized that if they overturned the ban, the first call 99 percent of us would make would be to their offices and home phones.

Think of it: We’d call them and say things like, “Dudes, guess where I’m calling from?” and “So, you know, we just, like, hung out and had a few drinks and stuff, and, well, you know…”  and “No, I  miss you more, sweetie-pookums.”

Hey, if we were going to have to put up with it, so should they.

Redial 2004
The FCC originally proposed loosening its cell phone ban back in December of 2004, only to be flooded with a torrent of public commentary. Technical issues aside, passengers envisioned a cacophony of one-sided conversations, while flight attendants fretted about a sudden rise in air-rage incidents.

In fact, a poll by the National Consumer League and a flight attendants group revealed that 79 percent of respondents were opposed to lifting the ban. Likewise, a reader vote on last year (unscientific, of course) revealed that 76 percent of the respondents would rather share their next flight with a case of snakes than chattering seatmates. (Come to think of it, considering how few people actually saw that movie, both ideas should’ve been grounded from the get go.)

At the same time, a poll by the International Airline Passengers Association revealed that 45 percent of respondents ranked listening to others’ calls as the second most irritating thing they could think of on a plane, right after someone kicking the back of their seat. Depending on the strength of the kicks and the nature of the conversation, I’d say it’s a pretty close call.

Out with the old, in with the new
Of course, in-flight 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 longtime provider of seatback service, announced last June that it was getting out of the in-flight phone business. The company said it planned 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, nature abhors a vacuum, and Verizon’s soon-to-be-abandoned bandwidth was unlikely to remain vacant for long. In fact, two companies — Colorado-based AirCell Inc., and Live TV LLC, a division of JetBlue Airways Corp. — quickly snapped up that bandwidth in an FCC auction last year.

Supposedly, that bandwidth is being earmarked for Wi-Fi Internet access, which will facilitate harmless (i.e., relatively quiet) Internet surfing and e-mail access. The bad news is that doesn’t mean the specter of cell phones won’t be raised again, especially since a number of international airlines are hoping to offer in-flight dialing within the year.

The first will probably be Emirates Airlines, which has invested $27 million in a project to equip its entire fleet with cell phone capability. The plan was to inaugurate the service on one plane in January of 2007, although the company is apparently still waiting on regulatory approval. Other airlines, including Air France, KLM and Quantas, are working on plans of their own.

For its part, Emirates has announced that it will take precautions to prevent excessive cell phone use. They say that passengers will only be allowed to make calls once the plane reaches cruising altitude and that the cabin crew will have the ability to prevent calling at certain times (e.g., during the night). They also say that passengers will be limited to a maximum of five or six calls per flight.

We say — and I speak only for those of us who cherish what little refuge the average plane flight now provides — that we don’t care. We don’t care what they may do in Europe. We don’t care what they may do on Emirates Airlines. We do not want cell phone service in the sky. Not now, not ever, and if the FCC changes its mind and some U.S. airline decides to offer the service, we’ll simply vote with our credit cards and fly another airline.

Can you hear us now?