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With cell phones on planes, silence is golden

Cell phones on planes: It doesn't sound so bad, does it? You might be surprised. The Well-Mannered Traveler found out from readers after two recent columns on the prospect of the invasive technology taking off on your next flight.

Five years ago — a lifetime in our high-tech world — one of my friends told me she was appalled at the idea of sending electronic mail instead of taking pen to paper or making a long-distance call. To her, the world of cell phones seemed equally dreadful. “You’ll never catch me with one of those,” she told me, “I promise.”

Now, of course, my friend stays up late at night e-mailing her many e-friends around the world. And she was one of the first on her block to get an iPhone because, nowadays, she simply “cannot imagine not being able to check e-mail and look things up when I’m away from my home computer.”

I was thinking of my reformed “you-won’t-catch-me-doing-that” friend when I began reading through all the reader comments about my recent columns exploring the pros and cons of in-flight wireless data and cell-phone service. Especially when I saw the comment sent in by Jeff Bilus, a banker from Margate, Fla. His straightforward response: “I will not fly on an airline that allows cell-phone talking while in the air. I promise.”

Bilus is certainly not alone in wanting to be left alone when traveling. Sandra Kelly, who works in the financial services industry in Hazlet, N.J., is already fed up with having to listen to other people yak on their cell phones when she goes to work on the train. There, she says, people are “loud and annoying and whenever asked to quiet down it always leads to an argument.” She’s worried that on an airplane, “people won't use discretion” when on their cell phones “because as far as they are concerned it's about them. They could care less if they are disturbing anyone else.”

Kevin Gillotti, a graphic designer in San Diego, Calif., agrees: “The last things we need at 30,000 feet are obnoxious endless ring tones, loud talkers and chatty talkers ... The population cannot even control their rude and selfish cell-phone usage on the ground, imagine in the air where they have nothing better to do and are competing with others on their phones or [with] engine noise just to be heard.”

Sky-high cacophony is exactly what Bryan Huffstutler, a handyman in Birmingham, Ala., is afraid of: “In a world that is continually getting smaller and people are becoming far more inconsiderate, the idea of cell phones on an airplane is abominable ... It would sound like a blasted restaurant from day one. And the ‘LOUD TALKERS’ would be the ringmasters, setting the bar for everybody else to match. People today are clueless regarding etiquette and consideration and require someone else, a higher power, to save the day.”

A “higher power to save the day” you say? Now who, or what, would that be? Perhaps it should be all the well-mannered travelers who take the time to respond to our current about in-flight data and cell-phone service.  Maybe it should be the folks who have already responded over the past year or so to surveys on this topic conducted on behalf flight attendants and travel companies such as TripAdvisor, Orbitz and others. Or should we just leave it up to the group of legislators that banded together recently to introduce the HANG UP Act, a bill that would officially ban cell-phone use (but not e-mail and other wireless data services) on all commercial airplanes in the United States?

Robert J. Eckrich, an education manager and IT professional in Germantown, Md., doesn’t much care who — or what — higher power we turn to on this matter. Just as long as that higher power answers his prayers: “Three cheers to those who want to ban cell phones, but not Internet use on commercial aircraft. I only hope they make sure to include bans on the use of Webcams with a microphone on PCs as well ... If they do wind up allowing limited cell phone use, I hope there is an outright ban on those walkie-talkie type cell units ... I don’t want to listen to these clowns who have to shout into the thing and then await the reply from someone equally loud and obnoxious ... My attitude on this whole issue is very simple: keep it to yourself and don't bother me.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that in-flight cell-phone service is an airline amenity best left on the drawing board. In fact, Mark Mershon, an electrical technician in Salt Lake City, Utah, considers the whole cell-phone-on-planes debate to be “stupid, plain and simple.”  He wrote “ ... [N]ever has someone talking on a cell phone near me annoyed me in any way.”  In his view, “[C]hatting to a real person next to you should be no more annoying than someone talking on a phone next to you.” Yet, he pointed out “nobody ever suggested banning talking to a person the old fashioned way.”

So far. But folks like Marse Kueber from Fairbanks, Alaska, might be in favor of polling readers on that topic. While she believes everyone on an airplane “should have their personal feelings considered equally” she also wrote that “While traveling, I personally want to relax as much as possible. To achieve this, silence is necessary.”

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for