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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Clearing the air up there

    The first Monday after spring break: It’s not easy. Campus is filled with glassy-eyed, tired and generally discontent students, and professors aren’t any more eager than we are to jump back into the daily grind. But spring break isn’t always easy either. Sometimes the process of getting to your destination makes you wonder if the trip is even worth it. And the voyage may get worse in the near future.

    You know the airport drill: Show your identification to three or four annoyed-looking employees; get waved with a wand to prove you’re not carrying anything unbefitting a passenger; remove your shoes, your belt, your coat, the change from your pockets, your laptop from its case – and, in special cases, your dignity, as the airport staff prod you personally; pay eight bucks for a cup of coffee and a muffin of dubious age; stand in line, then stand in a different line and finally board the aircraft that will be your home for the next few hours.

    I can deal with – and, in the case of safety measures, even appreciate – these inconveniences and minor indignities. But there are dark and ominous clouds gathering over the proverbial skies of air travel.

    On May 10, the Federal Communications Commission will auction off rights to the radio frequencies that would allow providers to make Internet and cell phone services available during flights.

    In the past, cell phone use on flights was banned because of the FCC concern that the large amount of bandwidth required to make calls onboard would disrupt cellular service on the ground. However, new technology has rendered this concern moot.

    This technology is probably my least favorite invention since those creepy robotic dogs that were popular a few Christmases ago. And I’m no neo-luddite. I’m

    There are dark and ominous clouds gathering over the proverbial skies of air travel.

    as excited as the next person at the prospect of being able to check my e-mail compulsively while hurtling through the air at thousands of miles per hour. What I’m panicked about is the possibility of being forced to listen to high-volume cell phone conversations for the duration of a flight.

    And I’m not alone. When the FCC announced its intention to allow cell phone operation on commercial air flights, it received over 8,000 comments, of which only a tiny fraction were supportive. Everyone else, it seems, values preventing the inconvenience of being forced to listen to a seatmate’s conversation over the potential convenience of being able to make their own calls.

    It’s kind of a game of prisoner’s dilemma. Each of us would probably like to be able to make a phone call now and then. (And some passengers already do. In a recent study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that on each of 37 flights that they observed, one to four passengers made cell phone calls, despite current prohibitions.) What almost no one wants is for everyone else to be able to make calls whenever they feel like it.

    And think about how things will be when everyone does have that option. The background noise of the aircraft will make people shout into their receivers, causing poor reception, which will encourage more shouting. And it’s only a matter of time before the shouting provokes exchanges of harsh words with seatmates. Soon the exchanges of harsh words escalate into exchanges of fists. Barbarism! All because we wanted to chat while we fly.

    There are also lingering questions about the safety of onboard phone use. The Carnegie Mellon researchers expressed concern that, though cell phones and wireless Internet

    connections use different radio wavelengths than GPS systems, signal migration is possible. That means the signal of the guy next to you chatting away with his proctologist’s receptionist might combine with that of the girl in front of you baby-talking to her boyfriend and limit the plane’s ability to read GPS signals.

    Alarmist? Possibly. But I’m willing to paint my personal desire to keep people around me from disturbing my flight with the broad brush of safety concerns. I can only hope the FAA is as troubled by this worst-case scenario as I am; it will make its final report on the safety of in-air cell use in December.

    So, next time you’re on an airplane, enjoy the relative silence of children wailing and your neighbor casually attempting to hit on you. It may be your last chance.


    Lori Foley is a senior majoring in international studies and English. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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