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Winging It: Time to reconsider ban on in-flight calls?

It's stir-the-pot time again on the issue of talking on the phone while confined to a narrow metal tube 35,000 feet in the air.

It's stir-the-pot time again on the issue of talking on the phone while confined to a narrow metal tube 35,000 feet in the air.

A new campaign was launched last week aimed at persuading American travelers and members of Congress to catch up to the rest of the world by allowing airline passengers to talk on cell phones during flights.

The proponents of a change in current U.S. rules, which ban voice calls while a flight is under way, are pushing for the change by citing the experiences of passengers worldwide who already are making calls.

The campaign, paid for in part by companies that provide the in-flight phone service, contends that international calls being made on flights are mostly less than a minute, are drowned out by background noise, and don't appear to be annoying to fellow passengers.

According to the group, the Inflight Passenger Communications Coalition, there have been no reports overseas of "air rage," in which flight attendants have had to separate talkers from non-talkers who were about to come to blows.

In this country, airlines are rushing to make in-flight Internet access, using smartphones or laptops, available on their aircraft. You already can send and receive e-mail and surf the Web on half a dozen U.S. carriers, for about $10 to $12 a flight. Before we know it, most carriers will offer the service.

But federal regulations still prohibit voice calls using cell phones or computers equipped with VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol service, out of concern that they could interfere with a plane's navigational instruments or disrupt cell phone service on the ground.

Of equal or greater weight than the technical concerns, airlines, flight attendants, members of Congress, and virtually every reader I have ever heard from on the topic say it's an issue of etiquette and human rights.

In other words, do we have the inalienable right to not be trapped for hours next to someone chattering on the phone?

The proponents of changing the U.S. rule are especially worried now, because the House of Representatives has included language to make the voice-call ban permanent in a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. The Senate's version of the same bill doesn't include the ban, and the coalition is trying to keep it that way.

Overseas, more than 1.5 million travelers a month are on flights of 20 airlines on four continents without anyone getting upset about phone use, the coalition's officials say. "It's working all over the globe," coalition spokesman Carl Biersack said.

Indeed, even in this country, passengers with VoIP service already are surreptitiously using the technology to make voice calls using their computers during flights, and airlines "are just letting it go," Biersack said.

On the foreign carriers, the coalition says, order is being kept in the cabin by the cost of calls, about $5 a minute at international roaming rates, helping explain why most are less than a minute. Also, airlines don't allow calls on night flights, and there are only six to 12 frequencies available per flight, limiting the number of simultaneous calls.

OK, so are Americans just so prissy and technophobic that we're falling behind the Europeans, Asians, and Australians? Is it time we adjusted to the modern world?

I'm not going there yet. The memories are still too raw of the day the "quiet car" on my Amtrak train from New York to Philadelphia was full. I had to sit next to a businessman who talked on his phone, literally, the whole 90-minute trip, mostly berating an underling about his poor work performance.

I remember that as a horrible experience, and not only because of the aggravation. Why did neither I nor any fellow passenger nearby have the courage to ask the man politely to just shut up for a while?

But who wants to get into a verbal argument - or worse - with a stranger over his bad habits?

That's the problem. We are forced to listen to inconsiderate people who jabber away in public places, either because they don't know they're talking too loudly or don't care. Our own manners, or common sense, make us hesitant to say anything.

We already are being delayed from getting off crowded flights by people with a phone stuck between ear and shoulder, saying "We're here!" while blocking the aisle trying to get a bag out of the overhead bin.

I believe the great majority of my readers feel the same way I do. Each time I have written about this issue over the last three years or so, I have received about 10 times as many e-mails and phone calls than I typically do for a column, with about 95 percent unequivocally opposed to allowing calls on airline flights.

Perhaps those who agree with my stance are as old-fashioned as I am and we're fighting the inevitable. Perhaps American air travelers, because of the high cost of calls or out of a sense of human decency, will change the way they talk on cell phones in the confines of an airplane cabin.

Now it's your turn. Do you think we should take the chance that all will be smooth air with no bumps if the rule is changed?