OUT OF THE BLUE
Hang up that cell phone or risk a planeload of ire
By Elliott Hester
of the most difficult aspects of a flight attendant's job is handling
passengers who refuse to follow rules. "Please stow your carry-on,
sir." "Fasten your seat belt, ma'am." "Sorry,
but fingernail polish is flammable and should not be applied onboard.
voiced these FAA mandates to those who weren't willing to comply,
I've had my share of onboard confrontations. But the war of words
seems at its worst when the subject turns to cell phones.
I approached a businessman as our New York-Miami flight taxied toward
the runway. Sitting in the first row of coach, he spoke loud enough
so that passengers in the rear could hear details of his cellular
conversation. Yes, he was annoying fellow flyers. And because the
plane had left the gate, he was violating airline policy against
cell phone use on the ground.
"Sir, will you please turn off your phone?" I said. He
nodded his head in a way that suggested he would hang up when he
was good and ready.
I hovered above the businessman, scrutinized by passengers who seemed
eager to hear my next ploy. After I cleared my throat, the businessman
looked up. "I'll be finished in a minute!" he said, aggravated
by the intrusion.
"Sir, you need to terminate your call now," I said. "It's
airline policy." The man ignored me, prattling into his mobile
At this point I was faced with three options: 1) Vociferously demand
that he turn off his cell phone; 2) Inform the captain of the problem
and possibly delay the flight; or 3) Forget the whole thing, return
to my jump seat and hope no one reports the indiscretion.
I stood there, amid a sea of upturned faces, weighing my options
as the plane moved closer to takeoff...
As more and more travelers join the cellular revolution, usage aboard
airplanes is proliferating. Before the departure of any given flight,
no less than four or five passengers (sometimes 20 or more) will
have a cell phone glued to one ear. On the ground, the decision
to allow mobile calls is left to the discretion of individual airlines.
But government regulations prohibit the use of cell phones in flight.
Contrary to what most passengers believe, the Federal Communication
Commission (the government agency that regulates telephone usage),
not the FAA, imposed the in-flight ban on cell phones in 1991. According
to a Wall Street Journal report, "the FCC was mainly concerned
about cell phones' potential to interfere with ground-to-ground
Airlines tell passengers that cell phones can interfere with navigation
and communications equipment in the cockpit. But a study commissioned
by the FAA in 1996 failed to find a single instance in which equipment
was affected by a wireless phone. Nevertheless, electricity emanating
from cellular phones can, in theory, interfere with aircraft systems.
For this reason, Boeing Co. and the FAA support the FCC ban.
Though many airplanes are equipped with public "air-phones,"
passengers flinch at the $6 per-minute fee. (Airlines get a cut
of air-phone profits. This fact casts suspicion on why airlines
want cell phones turned off in the air.)
Despite government regulation, or perhaps because of it, chatting
above the clouds on a cell phone has proved irresistible for some.
I've seen passengers hunkered in their seats, whispering into Nokias.
I've watched frequent flyers scurry for a carry-on, as muffled ringing
emanates from within. Once, after the lavatory queue grew to an
unreasonable length, I knocked on the door. A guilt-ridden teenager
emerged. She admitted that she'd been in there for half an hour,
talking to her boyfriend on a cell phone.
These violators face harsh words and a possible fine. But when traveling
on foreign airlines, using a cell phone can have more serious consequences.
In 1999, oil worker Neil Whitehouse refused to switch off his mobile
phone on a British Airways flight. When a cabin attendant advised
him to turn off the unit because it could interfere with navigation
systems, Whitehouse replied, "Why? Are we going to get lost?"
The captain arrived and told Whitehouse to hand over his phone.
He refused. The 28-year-old was arrested upon landing and later
sentenced to one year in prison.
Last February, cell phone abusers received yet another warning.
This time it came from Saudi Arabia. Despite orders from the cabin
crew to turn off his cell phone before takeoff, a Saudi passenger
continued to chat away. The man forced a 30-minute delay and was
escorted from the plane by airport security. Later, a Saudi court
sentenced him to 70 lashes.
Moments before my New York-Miami flight rolled onto the runway,
I looked down at the businessman who had refused to turn off his
cell phone. Twice, I'd asked for compliance. Twice, my request was
ignored. If we were in Saudi Arabia instead of New York, he might
get 70 lashes. If we were governed by Britain's Civil Aviation Authority
instead of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, he might get
a year behind bars. I advised the businessman of these facts, but
to no avail. Then, in a voice loud enough for the planeload passengers
to hear, I told him that the aircraft would return to the gate and
that although he would not receive lashes or a prison sentence,
he might, however, cause his fellow passengers to miss their connections
That's when a hundred pairs of narrowed eyes turned on him. The
businessman abruptly put away his cell phone and remained incommunicado
for the duration of the flight.