The cellular phone, which played a pivotal role in last week's
terrorist attacks, is now at the center of another controversy.
Travelers who used to reluctantly respect the airlines' ban
on wireless devices now are vowing to defy the rules, and
a confrontation appears inevitable.
It's easy to see why some passengers aren't turning their
wireless devices off in flight. Reports that the hijacking
victims used their phones to call family members shortly before
their planes crashed are forcing everyone to rethink the limits
on cellular calls from planes. On at least one of the doomed
flights, travelers reportedly received word of the World Trade
Center attacks via mobile phones and then acted to prevent
Air travelers like Will Hester believe a ban on cell phones
is a bad idea in light of the "heroic acts in the face of
disaster," and that it ought to be reconsidered. "The growth
of technology as it relates to the empowerment of interpersonal
communication is, as history will prove, a good thing," he
Others are sounding more defiant. "Many of us will show more
tolerance to the cell phone from now on, and perhaps for those
who carry them, too," predicted The Motley Fool's David
"The cell phone, so much a part of American life in recent
years, is known as both a nuisance and a necessity, occasionally
a lifesaver, more often a health hazard," The Sacramento (Calif.)
Bee concluded a somewhat melodramatic editorial. "The pocket-sized
gadget took on a new sense of importance Tuesday when the
onslaught of terrorism shook America from coast to coast."
The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a
trade group for the wireless industry, wasted little time
taking advantage of the cell phone's role in this tragedy.
Although it didn't issue any official statements, the organization
broadcast a barrage of pro-cell phone stories in its daily
news summaries that seemed to suggest a cell phone belongs
in the hand of every patriotic American.
But last week's events raised more questions than they've
answered. What if wireless devices were allowed? Could
one or more of the flights have been saved? Or did the sudden
surge in cellular calls disrupt the aircraft's navigational
equipment and cause the crashes, notably the one in a remote
part of Pennsylvania? We don't know the answers to these questions
yet. We may never.
Here is what is known: Neither the federal government nor
the airlines are currently considering a modification of their
rules. Phoning from a plane is still a no-no unless you're
using one of the approved seatback handsets. We know that
flight attendants are trying to be more vigilant than ever
about security—there have been reports of some crewmembers
refusing to fly because of worries about safety—so cellular
scofflaws could face severe punishment if they're caught.
We also know that wireless communications networks weren't
designed for ground-to-air communication. Cellular experts
privately admit that they're surprised the calls were able
to be placed from the hijacked planes, and that they lasted
as long as they did. They speculate that the only reason that
the calls went through in the first place is that the aircraft
were flying so close to the ground.
Travelers are trying to find a middle ground between satisfying
the Federal Aviation Administration's desire to keep mobile
phones from interfering with an aircraft's navigation systems
and keeping in touch with family, just in case there's an
emergency. One solution: leave the cell phone on but don't
use it. Set the ringer to vibrate so the crew won't be tipped
off to an incoming call.
That may seem reasonable. But it isn't.
Digital phones send out what's known as a registration signal
when they're powered on. That signal, which tells the tower
that your phone is available to receive calls, occupies the
same frequency as it would if you were talking on it. The
only difference is that the signal is slightly stronger when
you're talking. That's why your phone's battery wears down
faster when you're using it. Analog phones use a different
frequency for calls than registration. However, that doesn't
make them any safer than their digital counterparts, experts
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, despite the
salty rhetoric and the defiance of some airline passengers
of the rule of law, you're still better off keeping your cell
phone powered off during a commercial flight.
You could be headed for a confrontation that you're unlikely
Christopher Elliott is a writer based in Key Largo, FL. You
can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or access his homepage at http://www.elliott.org.