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Can you hear them now?

September 15, 2006

ATTENTION PASSENGERS: YOU ARE now allowed to use your cellphone, pager, BlackBerry or any other up-to-the-minute mode of communication during flight. But please be advised that should you rudely blather on during the entire six-hour trip, we reserve the right to lock you in the bathroom or let other passengers come up with their own form of justice.

OK, so American passengers won't be hearing that preflight announcement anytime soon. But passengers on Ryanair, a low-cost European carrier, will start hearing it -- or part of it, anyway -- next year. And if the service proves popular, cellphones on airplanes soon may become as common as bad food or a crying baby in the seat next to you.

The advent of airborne cellphone calls, when and if it comes, will be condemned and celebrated. There will always be the type who relishes a cross-country flight as a five-hour opportunity to make sales calls. But many more will miss their time aloft in a no-ring zone. According to a poll released last year, given the choice of visiting the dentist or sitting next to someone using a cellphone, 59% chose the dentist. Imagine how many more would opt for a root canal when faced with the prospect of listening to 50 different ring tones in coach.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration currently ban the use of cellphones on planes because of potential interference with land-to-land mobile communications. Additional concerns have been raised about possible interference between cellphones and sensitive electronic systems used on aircraft.

But a growing body of research shows that mobile communications pose minimal or no risk during flight, especially on newer planes. And airlines see a new technology called "pico cells" as a way to provide even more safety. Pico cells are pocket-sized transmitters onboard that collect wireless signals from in-flight cellphone calls and transmit them directly to a ground or satellite network rather than letting the signals float through the air.

The technology is a major reason the FCC announced two years ago that it was considering allowing onboard cellphone calls in the U.S. The agency has yet to follow up, but with Ryanair's announcement, the pressure to make a decision is bound to increase. If cellphone use is approved, let's hope airlines can find a way to balance the needs of overly chatty passengers and those they drive nuts. Maybe they can offer the quiet ones a little more legroom.

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