Cell Phones on Planes: Why Not?

Has this happened to you? You're on a plane, prepping for the big meeting on your laptop, and a problem arises. You need an answer, fast.

So you reach into your pocket, grab your cell … and it hits you: no calls allowed.

Many of you think that's just terrific, but the "cells-on-planes" landscape is shifting. Just a couple of weeks ago, Mexico OK'ed cell phone calls in its airspace, and Aeromexico immediately said, "We're on it."

Why not? Dubai-based Emirates airline has been offering this service since last year. So has Malaysia Airlines. Plus, the European Union has OK'ed it, and Ryanair says, they're good to go. Still others are working on it.

But in the U.S. cell phone calls in flight are still banned, by both the FAA and the FCC (the FAA worries about the safety of planes, while the FCC worries about the safety of the cellular service). But for how long? Is a domino theory at work here?

It kind of looks that way. But what about our safety?

For more air travel news and insights visit Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Safety and Cell Phones

Let's ask the obvious question: Will a cell phone call interfere with critical airplane functions?

I wish there was a clear-cut answer. Some say, it's likely not a danger, but the FAA still considers it a potential safety issue (according to its "Fact Sheet" on cell phones -- dated 2005).

So why do some airlines allow it? Well, on Emirates, for example, you have to use their onboard picocell network, which isolates the cell communications from the pilot's.

Cell Phones and Hearing

Another safety issue: Can cell phones hurt your hearing? According to Dr. Randy Schnitman, an otolaryngoloist (ear, nose and throat doctor) practicing in Beverly Hills, Calif., cell phones really aren't an audiology medical issue. He says, normal "soft" conversation is about 40 to 50 decibels and he believes many cell conversations fall in that range, though he admits some folks do TALK REAL LOUD on their cells (like the fellow I always refer to as "Yellular").

Dr. Schnitman says this is an issue of social etiquette more than hearing, but added if he was stuck in a middle seat with cell phone yakkers on either side, "It would drive me nuts."

"You'd be better off consulting a psychiatrist about this than an ear doctor," he laughed.

So cell phone users just aren't that noisy; certainly not compared to say, an AC/DC concert which might hit 130 decibels, or even compared to a screaming kid on a plane (90 decibels). And it's no big deal compared to WiFi, either.

Huh? Well, say your seatmate has his laptop out to watch the latest Internet sensation on YouTube and starts laughing it up. Laughter clocks in at about 60 to 65 decibels, which is close to the noise of a hair dryer or vacuum cleaner. But I don't notice people saying "no" to WiFi.

Oh, sure, there was a time when some were dead set against it WiFi on planes -- out of fear of flying elbows, and of boors perusing adult content near innocents. But those concerns have largely melted away.

Today, all the planes of AirTran and Virgin America are WiFi-ed, and American Airlines' Tim Smith says, "By the end of the year, we will have approximately 170 aircraft outfitted with [WiFi], with more aircraft to come next year."

Clearly, a lot of business travelers love having an office in the sky; and a lot of them would love to add phones.

Actually, they do have "phones." They could make VOIP calls (Voice Over Internet Protocol) like Skype, and do so right now, if only the airlines would let them. As far as I could determine, there's no government rule against those calls, but as AirTran's Christopher White put it: "We intentionally made [this] decision, out of respect and concern for all passengers."

In other words, they knew some passengers would throw a fit. And yet, I really don't hear as much criticism of cells on planes as I used to.

But the move to keep cell phones off planes has Congressional allies. The House just passed the "Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace" Act, or HANG UP, which would maintain the ban on cell phone use during flights.

But again, people love their WiFi, even if it does cost as much as $12.95 for a three hour flight. In fact, many say it's one fee they don't mind paying.

So it's a logical progression: first WiFi, then cell phones. If passengers will pay for one, they'll pay for the other. And that may be the real reason we'll finally get to make cell phone calls in flight -- all those dazzling new fees for the airlines!

The airlines could charge cell phone users and cell phone haters. Think about it: some airlines might turn their lack of cell phone equipment into a marketing opportunity -- touting the peace and quiet of their planes, perhaps.

Or who knows, an enterprising airline might even charge a fee for a cell phone-free seating zone. The airlines must be drooling over these possibilities.

It won't happen today or tomorrow, but take a look at what's happening elsewhere. Like dominos, country after country is giving in to cell phone demand. If you hate it, just let the airlines know. I'm sure they'll accommodate you -- for a price.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.