By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
If cellphone calls are allowed on planes, flight attendants warn that safety lectures will be ignored more often and passengers will get into fights about noisy conversations.
"We cannot and will not be the 'cellphone police' on board as people yack loudly, in a confined space, without any concern for anyone else on board," said Russell Fuller, a flight attendant from Warrenton, Va.
He as among more than 1,000 people who have submitted comments to the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering lifting its 1991 ban on in-flight cellular service. Commissioners say the ban is no longer necessary because planes can carry their own cell towers, so they no longer interfere with ground-based communications.
A 30-day comment period ended Friday, and replies to the comments are due by March 17. So far comments are heavily opposed to allowing calls, although hundreds of respondents said they could live with silent text messages and Internet service for phones.
Even if the FCC lifts its ban, Congress is debating a legislative prohibition to voice calls. The Transportation Department would have to decide what service to allow on planes, and then airlines could decide whether to offer it.
But flight attendants, who would face the brunt of whatever is approved, are vocally against allowing calls. The Association of Flight Attendants with 60,000 members and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants with 16,000 members each opposed the FCC move.
"A plane full of people talking on cellphones is the stuff of nightmares," said Laura Glading, the APFA president.
One concern is that passengers will ignore safety lectures about finding exits, fastening seat belts and putting up tray tables. Flight attendants say passengers are already distracted by music or games or reading on their gadgets, a condition that worsened in November when the Federal Aviation Administration allowed passengers to use personal electronics from gate to gate.
Laura Shea, a 28-year flight attendant from Manhattan Beach, Calif., said passengers are more reluctant to turn off their electronics than smokers were in stubbing out cigarettes.
Another flight attendant, Maria Dartee of Clifton, Va., said passengers often look at her as if she's from another planet as she asks what they'd like to drink - once, twice, three times - while they are listening to something with earphones.
"Please imagine this scenario when I am trying to convey to them that the airplane is on fire, they need to put their oxygen mask on, or they need to evacuate," Dartee said.
Beverly Ryan of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., recalled yelling at a passenger who got out of her seat to visit the bathroomas the plane descended to land with the wheels down. Ryan said the young girl hadn't heard the landing announcement because she was absorbed in her gadget with her earphones.
"There will be more of these incidents with the possibility of a much worse outcome," Ryan said.
Foreign airlines routinely allow calls in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where providers say few people actually chat and calls average less than 2 minutes. But flight attendants warn that passengers already get into fights about noise and the situation will deteriorate with calls.
"The poor flight attendants will end up becoming referees between passengers and adding more danger to their already hard job dealing with irate people," said Jeanie Abela of Lincoln, Calif., who retired after 33 years as a flight attendant.
"I personally fear the fistfights that will occur onboard," said Annett Grasso, a 33-year flight attendant from Oriskany, N.Y. "We have had fist fights because (usually men) ask parents to shut their babies up when they cry."
Flight attendants who commented also worry that terrorists could coordinate their attacks when the cockpit is vulnerable or when crewmembers have been incapacitated.
"The information terrorists need is in real time, in multiple areas aboard the aircraft and that is difficult to share discreetly and without moving about the aircraft - unless we allow cellphone usage," said Susan Borden, a 35-year flight attendant from Rye Beach, N.H.