Will they allow cell phones on planes?

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 another catastrophe.

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 says.

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 Gardner.

“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 say.

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 to win.

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