Cell phone torture at 30,000 feet Tom Salonek April 11, 2005 I had just landed in Minneapolis after a trip to Denver. As we taxied to the gate, cell phones powered up. Behind me, someone's phone rang. He answered, "Bobbie, why are you calling me? No, no, it's the red one. [Pause.] Are you sure? [Pause.] I thought she was 43, not 34 ..." The conversation continued and continued and continued. Bobbie and my fellow traveler managed to cover such fascinating topics as sunburn, car repairs and the urination habits of dogs. I was trapped in seat 22D. Luckily, Bobbie's friend's phone could be turned on only after the plane landed. But this might soon change. In December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took the first step by initiating a proposal on lifting the cell phone ban on commercial flights. With more than 180 million cell phone subscribers in the United States, this is no small matter. In-flight cell phone use was banned in 1991 because of concerns about cell phones interfering with a plane's navigational systems. In 1998, airborne phones emerged with a company called AirCell, which provided in-flight phone service using seatback-mounted Airfones. While these phones were an option, not all planes had them. And the per-minute fees dictated that they were affordable only for royalty and billionaires. The FCC's proposal would relax the ban on cellular phone use, allowing travelers to use their personal cell phones in-flight. To approve such use, the FCC is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which uses the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), a nonprofit corporation, for recommendations on technical issues such as in-flight cell phone use. The RTCA has its final report on in-flight cell phone use set for release in 2006. In-flight use could happen sometime after 2006. Fixing interference If you're like many travelers, you might be wondering if cell phone use during flights is safe. In mid-2004, American Airlines and Qualcomm tested technology designed for just this purpose. To support in-flight calls, the airplane had antennas in the front and back of the plane. These antennas connected cell phones operating on an 800 MHz frequency -- a common cell phone frequency used in the United States -- to a mini-base station on the plane. This mini-station is called a "pico cell." When cell phones connect to a pico cell, the phones are instructed to operate at their lowest power setting. At higher settings, cell phones would attempt to reach base stations on the ground. The communication between the pico cell and the ground is done over a non-cellular band. The combination of cell phones talking to a pico cell, operating at a low power setting, and the transmission of the call from the pico cell to the ground over a non-cellular connection solves the interference problem. While the thought of people talking incessantly during flights sounds worse than enduring an in-flight screening of "Charles in Charge," there are significant advantages. Security is one. Cell phone use was credited on 9/11 for informing passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 that other planes were being used by terrorists to crash into targets. With this information, passengers decided to take over the plane. That plane crashed in Pennsylvania, far from its speculated target of the nation's Capitol. In-flight cell use also promises business and personal benefits. Business travelers will be available to work with fellow employees, serve customers and keep business moving regardless of whether they're on the ground or in the air. Passengers could tell loved ones they'll be arriving before the plane has landed. But the most noticeable benefit could be financial. Easing the in-flight ban will mean increased airborne phone use. With widespread use, cost per minute should be dramatically less than the Airfone. Of course, the real financial boon will be to the financially struggling airlines. You can bet they will find a way to tack on a surcharge for callers who access their pico cell stations. Maybe the opportunity to generate new airline revenue streams is behind the other communication-related proposals that the FCC is considering, such as allowing in-flight high-speed Internet access over the radio frequencies used by the seatback Airfones. This would allow access to e-mail. (Computers and other personal digital devices, such as pagers and video games, will remain subject to the FAA's authority over flight safety.) While many of these changes could make air travel more productive and less tedious, there's definitely a potential downside. Just think about those annoying cell phone users you hear at Blockbuster, Barnes & Noble and the grocery store. But at least in those situations, you have the option of walking somewhere else in the store to avoid hearing the boring personal details of perfect strangers' lives. That won't be quite so easy on a plane. For many, the incessant cell phone chatting of fellow passengers will interrupt what used to be a place to work, read, reflect or nap. I believe in-flight cell phone use is a matter of "when," not "if." But maybe every in-flight cell phone user should be expected to follow some basic rules of etiquette, such as limiting calls to a few minutes and using their phones only for tactical or business-related reasons. Offenders -- those loquacious souls who just can't resist going on for an hour about dry cleaning, car pooling or the urination habits of their dogs -- could be sent to cell phone etiquette classes. Better yet, the airlines could create a section of the plane just for cell phone users, similar to the former smoking sections in restaurants. Regulators might say a proposal like mine is unrealistic. I bet I could change their minds by requiring them to sit through an entire flight in seat 22D.