A battle is brewing in the court of public opinion and in Congress over whether air travelers should be allowed to use cell phones in flight as many foreign airlines now permit but which critics say is unsafe and annoying.
Advocates of in-flight cell phone hope to overturn bans that they say are outdated, unfair and do nothing to promote safety in the skies.
Their opponents, however, argue that radio signals from cell phones could disrupt key airplane functions. They are also quick to note that the incessant yapping of loud and inconsiderate cell phone users would make flights unbearable for flyers who prefer quiet.
Some lawmakers want to ban cell phone use in U.S. air space permanently. But at least one travelers' rights group sees a day when the United States and U.S. airlines will follow examples set in Europe and other places where cell phone calls are permitted on flights.
"The point is it works in the international market," said Carl Biersack, executive director of Inflight Passenger Communications Coalition.
"It doesn't need a legislative ban. It needs the regulators to do their thing," Biersack said. "It's a market that I think Americans want."
Two government agencies have banned the use of cell phones on U.S. commercial flights.
The FAA says cell phones and other portable electronic devices may give off radio signals that can affect aircraft communications, navigation and flight control. The risk is higher when the signals are in large quantities and for long durations, the FAA says.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission banned inflight cell phone use in 1991 to avoid interference with ground networks.
Meanwhile, a group of legislators, including Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has included a provision in the House-passed FAA reauthorization bill that would prohibit cell phone use on planes by anyone other than flight crews or law enforcement personnel.
The provision is not included in the Senate version and prospects are remote that Congress will pass legislation this year authorizing permanent funding for FAA programs.
The Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. airlines, has says that if allowed by the FAA, it would be a carrier-by-carrier decision whether to allow passengers to talk on cell phones in flight. This stance is almost identical to the one taken by the International Air Transport Association.
Potential safety hazards
"There are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices and cell phones give off," the FAA said in a 2009 statement.
The FAA allows passengers to turn on most portable electronic devices — excluding cell phones — once the plane reaches 10,000 feet. At that altitude, it is the airline's decision whether to allow the use of devices that are not specifically restricted.
But critics of the ban say that cell phones pose no safety risk to airplanes.
"I don't think anyone has said it's unsafe. They have not been asked to say it is safe," said Biersack.
The FAA has not specifically said cell phones are dangerous to planes. But Boeing Co, the world's second-largest commercial airplane maker, recommends "prohibiting the use of devices that intentionally transmit electromagnetic signals, such as cell phones, during all phases of flight."
Several governments, including the European Union, have OKd inflight cell phone use in their air space.
The EU approved the practice in 2008, and several carriers including Ryanair Holdings Plc and bmi, which is part of Deutsche Lufthansa AG , have tested or installed the instruments that make cell phone calls possible from planes.
Some experts say U.S. cell phone bans have more to do with ensuring quiet, peaceful flights than they do with safety.
Terry Trippler, a travel expert at rulestoknow.com, said that unfettered cell phone use during flights would be a major nuisance to passengers who prefer quiet.
"If it were brought to a vote, it would be defeated. Cell phones would be banned permanently on airplanes," he said. "The airline is one place I think they'll draw the line."
Some airlines now give passengers access to electronic communication during flights without allowing phone calls.
AMR Corp's American Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc offer Internet access via Aircell's Gogo service, which some see as a quiet alternative to cell phone chatter.
But Biersack says it is still unfair to ban cell phones based on their potential to annoy. He noted that in-flight calls would be infrequent and brief if only because of the high cost. Furthermore, airlines could determine when phone calls would be permitted and in which rows, he said.
Finally, he noted that there are plenty of other legal annoyances — like crying babies or barking dogs — on flights, so there is no point in singling out this one.
"There's always going to be a rude person," he said. "But the rest of us live by the norms. We know what to do."